What Is Indecent Exposure?

There are severe penalties for sexually exposing oneself in public

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 12, 2022

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Indecent exposure laws prohibit individuals from exposing their genitals or private areas in public for the purpose of sexually arousing themselves or offending others.

The law governing indecent exposure varies by state. Some states label the crime differently, calling it public indecency or lewd and lascivious behavior.

Whatever the label, indecent exposure is a sex crime. Depending on the state’s laws and the specific circumstances of the offense, charges of indecent exposure can range from a misdemeanor to felony charges. Penalties include fines, time in prison, and mandatory registration as a sex offender.

Because of the potentially lifelong consequences and stigma of a sex offense, “most people would probably prefer getting charged with a non-sex offense felony than a sex offense misdemeanor,” says Kansas criminal defense attorney Trey Pettlon.

Given the severe penalties of a sex crime, it’s imperative for those accused of indecent exposure to seek legal representation as soon as possible.

How Indecent Exposure Charges Are Proven

Indecent exposure laws vary by state. The name of the crime can also vary. For example, in Kansas, the crime of indecent exposure is referred to as lewd and lascivious behavior.

In general, however, prosecutors must prove a few key points to convict someone of indecent exposure. The elements of indecent exposure are:

  • Exposing one’s private body parts. Depending on state law, this can mean displaying one’s naked body or genitals specifically. Laws may also specify other body parts, such as the female breast.
  • To public view. The display of private parts is in the presence of another person who can see the act, typically in a public place such as a street or park.
  • Willfully or purposefully. The public display was committed for sexual gratification, sexual desire, or offending others.

To prove these elements, prosecutors “always have to meet the standard of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt,” says Pettlon.

Examples of Indecent Exposure

There are many examples of indecent exposure. Regardless of the specific act, Pettlon says, “the money question … is whether [the act] was done for sexual arousal. What separates lewd and lascivious behavior from an act like mooning somebody is that it’s done for the sexual arousal of the offender or alleged victim.”

For example, urinating in a public area could count as indecent exposure if it is done in view of other people for the offender’s sexual arousal or for giving offense to others.

However, if someone urinates in a public area but does so behind a building or tree and does not think others would see them, that may not count as indecent exposure.

Pettlon cites a case in which a defendant charged with lewd and lascivious behavior (indecent exposure under Kansas law) argued that he just had to urinate. However, the alleged victim testified that the defendant had an erection. This inculpatory evidence would change the act to a sex crime.

Many states have specific exceptions for public breastfeeding and other exceptions related to artistic performances involving nudity.

It is essential to understand your state’s laws on indecent exposure. A criminal lawyer with experience defending sex crimes will be able to help you navigate criminal charges and pursue the best outcome.

Penalties for Indecent Exposure

An indecent exposure conviction can bring severe penalties. In Kansas, indecent exposure (lewd and lascivious behavior) can range from a misdemeanor to a felony, depending on the circumstances. The offense is a:

  • Misdemeanor if committed in the presence of someone who is 16 or older
  • Felony if committed in the presence of someone who is under 16 years of age

Say someone displayed their genitals in a public area, three people witnessed it, one of them over the age of 16 and one under. In that case, Pettlon says, “there will be three counts, and one [of the counts] will be a felony for the person who is under 16.”

Besides the alleged victim’s age, prosecutors can also bring felony indecent exposure charges if the offender has prior convictions.

A misdemeanor conviction can bring significant fines or having to serve time in county jail. A felony indecent exposure conviction can bring lengthy sentences in state prison.

In addition to determining how long a prison sentence will be, felony versus misdemeanor convictions can also “be the difference between having to register as a sex offender or not,” Pettlon says.

Every state has laws requiring law enforcement to create and maintain a sex offender registry for tracking and monitoring convicted sex offenders in the community. These laws aim to ensure public safety and typically require offenders to provide their:  

  • Name (including name changes)
  • Up-to-date photograph
  • Current address and any changes in residency
  • New phone numbers or emails
  • Current occupation and any employment changes 
  • Enrollment at a school or institution of higher learning
  • Criminal record 

Some states may require further information. Registration is not a single event. Rather, sex offenders must regularly update their information and check in with local law enforcement. Failure to register constitutes a separate offense, typically a felony, that brings its own prison sentence.

Being on a sex offender registry is “a scarlet letter,” Pettlon says, that can permanently “affect your ability to get an apartment [or] job” and bring lifelong embarrassment.

Questions for an Attorney

If you are facing indecent exposure charges, it’s essential to seek legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A criminal defense lawyer will understand your state’s criminal laws and be able to formulate the best defense strategy.

Fortunately, many attorneys provide free consultations, allowing the attorney to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs.

To see whether an attorney or law firm is a good fit, ask informed questions such as:

  • What are your legal fees
  • What billing options do you offer?
  • How many years of experience do you have defending accused sex offenders?
  • What are my state’s laws on indecent exposure?
  • What penalties could I face if convicted?
  • What are my best defenses?

You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

Look for a sex offense attorney in the Super Lawyers directory on matters related to indecent exposure.

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