Indecent exposure— sometimes called "public indecency" or "public lewdness"—is a crime that involves intentionally exposing one's private parts in public. Laws banning indecent exposure vary throughout the country but share many similarities. The crime can be a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances, and can result in time behind bars and registration as a sex offender.
This article covers the law of indecent exposure, possible penalties and defenses, and common questions about the offense.
Indecent exposure typically involves someone intentionally exposing their private parts (usually genitals) in public. The classic example is the "flasher"—a guy in a trench coat who opens his coat to expose himself as women walk by. This conduct and other similar behaviors are criminal if they meet the "elements" (components) of an indecent exposure offense.
To convict someone of indecent exposure, the prosecutor must prove each element of the offense to a judge or jury, beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements vary by state, but usually include:
Conviction of a first offense for indecent exposure is usually a misdemeanor. Repeat offenses can result in a felony conviction. The number of prior convictions that will trigger a felony charge for a new offense varies by state.
In some states, if the person exposes their private parts to a child under a certain age (the age varies from state to state), the offense is a felony.
And in a state like California, the crime is a "wobbler"—meaning it can be a misdemeanor or a felony—if the person committed the offense inside a home that they entered without consent. (In that circumstance, the defendant might also face burglary charges, depending on the facts). (Cal. Penal Code, § 314.)
Someone convicted of indecent exposure can be subject to any or all of the following penalties:
A number of defenses are commonly raised by people charged with indecent exposure. Here are three of the most frequent defenses.
In some states, a person's consent to another's nudity might be a defense. In fact, a few states require the prosecution to prove that the viewer didn't consent to the exposure.
But consent usually won't work as a defense if someone who doesn't consent sees the exposure. For example, two people might consent to each other's exposure while having sex in the woods of a public park, but both could be charged with indecent exposure if a hiker encounters them.
A lack of lewd intent (or intent to cause affront or alarm) can be a defense in states that include that element in their definition of indecent exposure. For example, a person who urinates in public could argue they didn't expose themselves to sexually arouse themselves or another.
Sometimes, the person revealing their private parts doesn't mean for anyone else to see, especially when they're in a location that's usually private, like a home or hotel room. For example, someone who walks naked out of their hotel bathroom without realizing that the housekeepers had entered the hotel room could argue their exposure was unintentional.
To learn more about common defenses to indecent exposure, see our article "Wrongful Accusations of Indecent Exposure."
You now know the basics of indecent exposure, but here are some particular issues you might wonder about.
Many places that aren't open to the general public are still considered public under indecent exposure laws. For example, prisons and hospital rooms aren't open to the general public, but exposing oneself to a guard or a nurse can result in an indecent exposure charge.
In many states, exposure in any place visible to the public is enough to commit indecent exposure. For instance, intentionally exposing oneself inside a private home could be illegal if someone outside the home can see the exposure.
In some states, revealing your private parts to people within the same home as you can be indecent exposure. In California, for example, the exposure can be a crime "in any place" where other people will "be offended or annoyed" by it. In states with similar laws, courts have found that lewdly exposing genitals to house guests or one's own children while inside the home can be indecent exposure.
(Cal. Pen. Code, § 314 (2022); Wisneski v. State, 921 A.2d 273 (Ct. App. Md. 2007); State v. Whitaker, 793 P.2d 116 (Ct. App. Ariz. 1990).)
In many states, someone can be convicted of indecent exposure if even no one else sees their private parts. (But, often in these circumstances, there will be no one to complain to the police).
What's important under the law in those states is whether a reasonable person should have known the exposure could be seen by others. For example, if someone reveals their privates in the presence of another who turns away to avoid the sight, the defense that no one saw the exposure probably wouldn't work.
Similarly, in a state where someone of the opposite sex must be present for the exposure, a man's exposure to a heterosexual couple can be enough for a conviction even if the female didn't see it.
An exposure that's accidental isn't willful (and doesn't involve lewd intent). When someone is charged with indecent exposure, the prosecutor has to prove the exposure was on purpose.
Because there's often no direct evidence of what's inside a person's head, the prosecutor will likely rely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove the defendant intended the exposure. They might point to the defendant's words, conduct, or expression when the exposure happened, or how long and where the exposure was.
For example, in the hotel/housekeepers scenario above, if the person who came out of the bathroom looked surprised to see the housekeepers and quickly ran back into the bathroom, the exposure might look like an accident. On the other hand, if the person remained calmly naked in front of the housekeepers and made no effort to cover up, the exposure probably wouldn't be seen as accidental.
Most states' indecent exposure laws make an exception for breastfeeding. And the majority of states have created a right to breastfeed in public. Many states have done both.
The laws that specifically allow breastfeeding typically permit it in any place the mother and child have a right to be. Under these laws, there's little to no chance that breastfeeding in public could be considered indecent exposure.
In many states, people convicted of indecent exposure must register as sex offenders. In states where the defendant must have lewd intent in order to be guilty of the offense, registration is often required because the conduct is sexual in nature. In states that have no lewdness requirement, the offense might not require registration. (Duran v. State, 180 Md.App. 65 (2008).)
If you're facing a charge of indecent exposure, consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the case against you and help develop any defenses you might have. For example, if you believe your exposure wasn't sexually motivated, you'll need to know whether your state's law has a lewd intent requirement, as explained above.
A local criminal defense attorney who knows the prosecutors and judges involved in your case could be in a good position to negotiate a favorable plea bargain (such as one that avoids sex offender registration, or results in little or no jail time). And if you decide to go to trial, having a good lawyer on your side will be essential.
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