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What Are the Public Indecency Laws in California?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 15, 2022

Review of Indecent Exposure Under California Law

California Penal Code 314 PC lays forth laws regarding the act of indecent exposure, which is when a person purposely exposes themselves in front of another individual that may be offended by it under normal circumstances.

PC 314 defines indecent exposure as “anyone who willfully and lewdly, either exposes his person, or the private parts, in a public place or where other people are present to be offended or annoyed thereby.”

What Are the Public Indecency Laws in California?
It's a crime to intentionally expose your genitals in a public place for the purpose of sexual gratification.

For a person to commit indecent exposure, it also has to be proven they intended to direct apparent attention to their genitals while in a public setting for purposes of:

  • sexual gratification for either themselves or someone else; or
  • to purposely offend someone else.

In other words, the actual act of “exposing” must be done with the intent to draw public attention to their genitals for sexual gratification or to offend someone. Put simply, “intent” is a primary element of the crime in a Penal Code 314 indecent exposure prosecution.

The legal penalties for a conviction will always depend on the circumstances of the case and, significantly, whether it's a first or subsequent offense. However, even a misdemeanor offense conviction could require sex offender registration.

Any second or subsequent indecent exposure offense could result in aggravated felony charges that carry up to three years in state prison.

This negative social stigma affects where you can live or work and other serious collateral consequences. If you have been accused of indecent exposure, you need to retain legal counsel early in the case, as prefiling negotiations with the prosecutor might be possible. In this article by our California criminal defense lawyers, we will examine this topic in greater detail below.

What Are Some Examples That Are NOT Considered Indecent Exposure?

The following examples are hypothetical scenarios where the individual has not committed a crime because the incident does not meet an indecent exposure charge criteria.

  • A woman in the park is breastfeeding a child as she sits on a bench, within view of other people. Exposing a bare breast in this scenario is not considered an offense under the law, as it would be if someone had revealed their naked genitals;
  • A female who is at a crowded beach decides to go swimming. The water is particularly rough that day, and she loses her bathing suit bottoms through no fault of her own. Regardless of whether she exposed herself in front of others, she did not willingly do so. Under the law, there has to be intent behind the action to qualify as indecent exposure.

If you are facing an accusation of indecent exposure in California, you must speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. A conviction for this charge can have several adverse lasting effects and collateral consequences.

What Are the Penalties for a Conviction?

Most charges for indecent exposure are prosecuted as misdemeanors that carry a maximum penalty of a fine of up to $1000 and 6 months in county jail. They must also register as a sex offender for ten years (Tier-1).

Legal Penalties for Indecent Exposure in California
A Penal Code 314 indecent exposure conviction can result in jail time and registration as a sex offender.

In some cases, a defense lawyer may be able to get sentencing reduced to probation, so you don't serve any jail time. If, however, a person commits the crime of indecent exposure to a more severe degree, the offense can come with a harsher punishment.

For example, if a person enters another individual's home, and the homeowner was present when the defendant was exposed, the offense would be considered “aggravated” indecent exposure.

Aggravated indecent exposure is considered a wobbler offense under California law, which means they are criminal offenses that can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. The prosecutor will decide what type of offense to charge depending on the facts and circumstances of the case.

Generally, criminal charges are either misdemeanors or felonies and cannot switch between the two categories. Wobblers are different because they can be charged in both categories.

If aggravated indecent exposure is charged as a misdemeanor, the defendant faces the same consequences above, except for a more increased maximum jail sentence of one year. When the offense is charged as a felony, however, it is punishable by up to:

  • a minimum of sixteen months in state prison, or the possibility of either a two-year or maximum three-year state prison sentence;
  • a maximum of $10,000 in fines; and
  • a minimum ten-year requirement to register as a sex offender.

Offenders convicted of repeated indecent exposure are automatically charged with a felony. Additionally, suppose someone is convicted of indecent exposure for the first time but has a previous conviction for lewd acts with a minor under California Penal Code 288 PC. In that case, they will also be charged with an automatic felony.

What Are the Related Crimes?

Penal Code 647(a) PC - lewd conduct in public: This law prohibits touching your own or someone else's genitals, buttocks, or breasts in public for sexual gratification. Similar to indecent exposure, lewd conduct is a misdemeanor offense.

Penal Code 647(b) PC - solicitation of prostitution: This statute prohibits the act of offering or agreeing to exchange sexual acts for compensation. This is a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Penal Code 288 PC - lewd acts with a minor child: If lewd conduct is committed on a minor under 14, it's a felony offense rather than a misdemeanor, subject to the severe penalties associated with felony sex crimes.

Penal Code 602 - trespassing:  Trespassing is not typically sexually-related, but prosecutors will use it as a subsequent charge for anyone accused of aggravated indecent exposure, such as inside a building if they don't have sufficient proof that the defendant intended to expose themselves.

Penal Code 415 PC – disturbing the peace: Prosecutors could use this law to charge somebody if they behave in a loud and belligerent manner in a public place. While not directly connected to indecent exposure, it's often used to negotiate for criminal lawyers in plea bargaining.

What Defenses are Available for Indecent Exposure?

Several defenses are available to individuals accused of having committed indecent exposure. Some of the most common include:

  • The person accused did not expose themselves;
  • Defendant didn't know they were in the presence of another party;
  • Charges were brought against the individual as a result of mistaken identity;
  • No intent for sexual gratification,
  • Exposing genitals was not intentional.

For a person to have committed a crime, the evidence must satisfy the defined terms of what constitutes indecent exposure in a legal sense. If each of the elements included in the definition cannot be proven, the person accused will most likely not be convicted.

Defenses for Indecent Exposure Charges
To be convicted of PC 314 indecent exposure, all the elements of the crime must first be proven.

Situations where evidence can successfully demonstrate that a defendant was unaware of the other party's presence, was not fully exposed, or did not attempt to gratify themselves sexually would likely result in no conviction.

If the prosecutor can't prove every crime element, you are not guilty of indecent exposure. Perhaps you did not violate every provision under this statute like you were not in a public place to be seen by other people that could be offended.

Perhaps your genitals were partially clothed, or there was no intent for sexual gratification. Recall every factor must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Perhaps we could negotiate with the prosecution for reduced charges or case dismissal or even avoid the formal filing of charges in the first place. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County. Contact us by calling (310) 328-3776 or the contact form.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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