Are there any legal limitations on what hygiene functions you can perform in a public restroom?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Public restrooms are made available in buildings as a courtesy to enable the public a convenience while they make use of the primary facility for its intended purpose. One of the famous public library cases involving patron behavior makes it very clear that a public facility only has to allow people to use the place for its stated public function, not for any other tangential uses that one might make of it.[i] Another court has specifically said of public restrooms that, “[t]he public’s right to expect privacy in such locations is reasonably limited to the performance of excretionary and ablutional acts indigenous to a restroom, never for sexual acts of any nature.”[ii]

If restrooms are made available so that people can conveniently relieve themselves and wash their hands while making use of a facility, then shaving or brushing teeth would be unusual, but probably not terribly disturbing there; bathing one’s entire body would seem to go far beyond the intended use of the place. Someone doing that might simply be asked by an employee to leave or might be apprehended by police.

Case law has generally demonstrated that people are entitled to privacy when doing activities involving their own body or health in the stalls of public restrooms.[iii] But because our legal codes do not list every single thing that a person has a right to do and employees can call the police at any time that they feel the need for support, it is impossible to list which actions might be grounds for calling the police on someone in a public restroom.

When police are called, they have to investigate whether an illegal act has occurred; that is how they determine whether to charge someone with a crime. The sad fact is that someone doing something perfectly legitimate, especially someone who looks homeless, could arouse staff suspicion and have to answer police questions about what he was doing in the restroom.[iv] 

The legal principle that behavior has to be consistent with the purpose of the facility comes from court cases interpreting the U.S. Constitution’s free speech rights. Constitutional issues involve actions taken by government entities. So, government facilities, not businesses, have the constitutional right to assert that certain behavior is prohibited because it exceeds the place’s intended use. Businesses and other privately-owned facilities can also assert that certain behavior is prohibited, but they do it under different authority-the basic right to have control over their domain.

Whether this right to limit behavior comes from the Constitution or a place’s own management policies, police involvement always counts as government action. So, once the police arrive, the restroom user’s constitutional rights to privacy, freedom from illegal search and seizure, etc… are legally protected. As indicated throughout the posts about police and courts, there might be an assortment of charges that the police could apply when faced with behavior that is not precisely described in the crimes code. Washing one’s entire body in a public restroom might be disorderly conduct, public nudity, criminal trespass, public indecency, indecent exposure, or any number of other criminal law violations.[v] 

If police charge a restroom user with a crime, he might be able to use constitutional defenses for his behavior in addition to trying to disprove the prosecution’s evidence against him with basic criminal law defenses. Criminal law defenses might come from analyzing the text of the criminal charges or comparing his acts to previous cases.      When a defendant makes a constitutional law claim about how the police handled the situation, it is not a defense that excuses or validates the defendant’s own behavior in the public restroom. It is an accusation that the police did something wrong and that, therefore, the prosecution against this defendant is illegitimate.

Often, defendants in public restroom misbehavior cases, which tend to involve people who have been charged for masturbating, drug transactions, and homosexual behavior, assert that the police violated their Fourteenth Amendment due process right to privacy or their Fourth Amendment privacy rights regarding searches and seizures. These privacy rights are not explicit in the words of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments themselves.[vi]

As is explained in the posts about finding lost property and municipal sweeps of homeless encampments, privacy rights have arisen from cases interpreting the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment search and seizure privacy cases generally ask whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in what he was doing. If the court agrees that the expectation of privacy was reasonable under the circumstances and the police actions invaded the scope of that privacy expectation, then the search and seizure will be deemed illegal and the evidence gleaned cannot be used against the defendant.

The Fourteenth Amendment due process form of privacy is sometimes known as “the right to be left alone.”[vii] Cases analyzing privacy according to that amendment consider privacy to be a type of liberty interest under the due process clause. When doing this analysis, the courts ask whether the government is invading personal rights or actions (like birth control, marriage between people of different races, abortion, assisted suicide) that are “fundamental” or “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”[viii]

If the court does find that fundamental rights have been invaded, the government actors have to stop that invasion of privacy. So, if a government entity, for example a post office, had a sign in its restroom saying “no bathing allowed” and a court declared that private decisions about how and where to bathe are a fundamental right which this rule violated, then the rule would have to be eliminated and after that people would be allowed to bathe in that restroom.[ix]

Prosecutions for dealing drugs and masturbating in public restrooms have been ruled invalid when defendants were caught by police who peeked on them in private stalls.[x] But, as was shown above, the constitutional violations were connected to search and seizure privacy rather than due process privacy even though, similar to the due process cases involving birth control, abortion, and assisted suicide (none of which had any connection to public restrooms), they clearly involve people’s own use of their bodies.

Drug dealing and masturbating (probably charged as “public lewdness”) are more clearly defined and more harshly punished under crimes codes than bathing in a public restroom. But any lack of clarity about whether particular actions are illegal in public restrooms is really more relevant to the defense against the criminal charges than to a claim about constitutional rights. This is why people charged with misbehavior in public restrooms try to use a combination of constitutional defenses and criminal defenses. The criminal law defenses try to show that behavior wasn’t wrong and the constitutional law defenses try to show that no matter what the behavior was, the defendant did it with an expectation of privacy in the most private component of a public place.


[i] Kreimer v. Morristown, 958 F.2d 1242, 1262 (3d Cir. 1992) (“[A]s a limited public forum, the Library is obligated only to permit the public to exercise rights that are consistent with the nature of the Library and consistent with the government’s intent in designating the Library as a pubic forum. Other activities need not be tolerated.”).

[ii] People v. Anonymous, 415 N.Y.S.2d 921 (N.Y. Misc. 2d 1979).

[iii] Courts have come to recognize that a right to privacy exists for occupants of public bathroom stalls.  This recognition has resulted in cases reversing convictions based on evidence obtained through observation in a public restroom because the evidence was gained in violation of these defendants’ reasonable expectation of privacy.  See, e.g., People v. Dezek, 308 N.W.2d 652 (Mich. Ct. App. 1981) (reversing defendant’s conviction of “gross indecency” after he was found with another man in the bathroom); State v. Biggar, 716 P.2d 493 (Haw. 1986) (reversing a drug conviction initiated by an officer peering over the partition in the public bathroom to observe the defendant’s activities); State v. Casconi, 766 P.2d 397 (Or. Ct. App. 1988) (reversing conviction for public masturbation observed in a public bathroom); State v. Brown, 929 S.W.2d 588 (Tex. App. 1996) (reversing conviction for public masturbation observed in a public bathroom).

[iv] See the posts about interacting with the police for more information about police questioning and one’s legal rights.

[v] See the posts on courts for more of an explanation about bringing and proving criminal charges.

[vi] The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause says: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law… .”  U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.  The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated … .”  U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[vii] See, Olmsted v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438, 4788 (1928) (“[The drafters of our Constitution] conferred as against the Government, the right to be let alone, the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”); Publ Util. Comm. v. Pollak, 343 U.S. 451, 467 (1952)(Douglas, William O., dissenting) (“The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.”).  See generally,  Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193, 193 (1890) (“[T]he right to life has come to mean the right to enjoy life, the right to be let alone; the right to liberty secures the exercise of extensive civil privileges.”).

[viii] Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325 (1937).

[ix] In addition to bringing constitutional claims for civil rights issues, most people also claim that Title 42, section 1983 of the United States Code was violated.  That is the law which entitles people to financial awards in court cases proving that their constitutional rights have been violated.

[x] See generally, Michael R. Flaherty, Annotation, Search and Seizure: Reasonable Expectations of Privacy in Public Restroom, 74 A.L.R. 4th 508 (1989).

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