Charges Associated With Public Urination In California

Although there's no charge called "public urination" in California, peeing in public could still lead to an arrest.

By , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law
Updated 9/09/2022

Public urination isn't just potentially embarrassing—it can lead to criminal charges. If you're charged with public urination or a crime related to public urination, take it seriously. Being convicted of any crime, even a minor one, could hurt your ability to get a job or professional license years down the road.

California Laws on Public Urination

Although there's no crime called "public urination" in California's laws, people can still be prosecuted in California for peeing in public based on local ordinances and state laws that target related conduct.

Peeing on the Street: Is It Illegal?

California laws don't specifically ban public urination, except on public transportation. But depending on the circumstances, a person who urinates in the street, sidewalk, or any other public area could be charged with disorderly conduct, public nuisance, or indecent exposure.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 640, 647, 370, 372 (2022).)

Public Intoxication and Public Urination: Together, They Can Be Disorderly Conduct

Usually, in California, people are arrested not just for the act of publicly urinating but also for other disruptive behavior that's considered "disorderly conduct." Disorderly conduct is a crime that interferes with people's use of public spaces, and it applies to many types of behavior. For example, people can be charged with disorderly conduct for public intoxication when they're so drunk or high that they:

  • obstruct (block) a public way (which could happen when peeing on the sidewalk), or
  • appear to be unable to care for themselves (which is more likely if they're peeing in public rather than in a bathroom).

In California, disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor.

(Cal. Penal Code § 647 (2022).)

Peeing in Public Can Create a "Public Nuisance"

In California, a public nuisance is anything that endangers public health, is "indecent, or offensive to the senses," or interferes with others' enjoyment of their life or property. At least one California court has found that public urination could constitute a public nuisance. A public nuisance offense is a misdemeanor in California.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 370, 372 (2022); People v. McDonald,137 Cal.App.4th 521 (2006).)

Urinating in Public and Indecent Exposure

Very rarely, people who urinate in public are charged with the more serious crime of indecent exposure, a misdemeanor that involves "lewd" behavior. To be guilty of that offense, people must intend to draw attention to their genitals in order to sexually arouse themselves, or to sexually arouse or offend someone else. (For more on what constitutes lewd conduct, see our article on public lewdness.)

Normally, peeing in public isn't related to lewd conduct, but when it is, an indecent exposure charge could result.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 290, 314 (2022).)

Local Ordinances Often Outlaw Urinating in Public

Many city and county ordinances classify public urination as an offense. A typical ordinance might prohibit urination "on any street, sidewalk, alley, plaza, park, beach, public building or public facility, or any place open to the public or exposed to public view."

An ordinance with this kind of wording prohibits urination even on private property if it's visible from a public place.

Criminal Penalties and Consequences: Can You Go to Jail For Public Urination?

People don't often go to jail for a year for peeing in public, but penalties for a California misdemeanor can include any or all of the following: incarceration in county jail for up to a year, a fine, and community service. Penalties are more severe if you've been convicted of prior offenses.

That said, a person convicted of peeing in public might be able to get the conviction "expunged" (meaning erased). Also, California has a strong "ban-the-box" law that doesn't allow employers to ask about or consider an applicant's criminal history until after they've chosen the applicant for the job. (Cal. Government Code § 12952 (2022).)

In the rare case where someone is convicted of indecent exposure for public urination, the offense requires registration as a sex offender, which is very serious.

Violations of local ordinances generally carry fines, community service, or both. Fines vary widely from county to county, but a typical ordinance might specify a fine of $50 to $500, depending on the circumstances.

If you're facing a misdemeanor charge related to public urination, get legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney. Depending on the circumstances, if the charge is just for peeing in public and nothing more serious, you might be able to get it reduced or even eliminated through "diversion." For example, diversion programs in California allow some people convicted of intoxication-related disorderly conduct offenses to avoid a conviction and get their arrest record sealed. This outcome is even better than expungement after a conviction: An expungement shows that the case was "dismissed" but it doesn't seal the arrest record.

(Cal. Pen. Code, §§ 1000, 1000.4 (2022).)

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