**** 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. ****
The words obscene and obscenity generally refer to printed or electronically published materials, rather than a person’s actions. Exposure of private body parts in person is more likely to be called “public nudity” or “open lewdness” in the law.[i] No matter what it is called, being naked, or at least having genitalia uncovered, is almost always illegal when you are in a place where people would not expect to come upon the sight of someone’s private parts.[ii] This is why people wearing skimpy bathing suits on the beach don’t get in trouble, but people bathing in a park or changing clothes in an alleyway do.
Often, it is a combination of unexpected exposure along with the possibility of offending or exciting an onlooker’s sexual sensibilities that makes public nudity illegal. Indiana courts have declared for decades that their anti-nudity statute was written for the purpose of “protecting the unsuspecting and non-consenting viewer from another’s exposure.”[iii] The Michigan Court of Appeals recently stated that “the purposes of the indecent exposure statute are best fulfilled by focusing on the impact that offensive conduct might have.”[iv]
Statutes, themselves, do not always convey that onlookers have to be surprised or offended and they don’t necessarily tell what degree of nudity is illegal. Some locales have highly specific anti-nudity statutes telling exactly how much exposure is too much and others have broad statutes, leaving more interpretation up to police discretion.
Sample laws: In Cotati, California, the municipal code says that “It is unlawful for any person over the age of ten years to willfully expose his person…in such a manner that the genitals, vulva, pubis, pubic symphysis, public hair, buttocks, natal cleft, perineum, anus, anal region or pubic hair region is exposed to public view.”[v]
In Independence, Missouri, the indecent exposure ordinance considers it a criminal act when anyone, “knowingly exposes his/her genitals or buttocks or a female exposes her breasts or is clothed in such a manner under circumstances in which he/she knows he/she will reasonably cause alarm or embarrassment to other persons.”[vi]
The Code in Grand Rapids, Minnesota simply says, “No person shall appear in any street, park or public place of the city in a state of nudity, in any indecent or lewd dress, or make any indecent or lewd exposure of his person.”[vii]
Charleston, South Carolina has a similarly broad standard, “No person shall appear in any public place or on property open to the public in a state of nudity or otherwise make any indecent exposure of his or her person.”[viii]
The Code of Federal Regulations, regulating behavior in national parks, is more general in its description of what it calls disorderly conduct: “A person commits disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public alarm, nuisance…knowingly or recklessly creating a risk thereof…engages in a display or act that is obscene.”[ix]
Defendants charged with violating the federal regulation at least have the opportunity to assert that they didn’t intend to cause a public alarm or didn’t know they were creating a risk of alarm or nuisance. And, since the federal regulation does not specify whether nudity alone or behavior combined with nudity might be an obscene “display or act,” there is also flexibility in defending the exposure itself.
The more specific local ordinances are harder to fight in court than the general language of the federal regulation, but those local ordinances come with less of a penalty, usually a ticket.[x] In other words, if the law says, “you can’t expose this part of your body” and a police officer has seen you expose it, then there just is not much flexible interpretation available for a defense.
Sometimes, when the police realize that they are dealing with somebody who cannot pay the fine and does not have a place to get cleaned up, they will transport the accused person to a shelter or some other place where the function that was being done in public can be done in private. That way, the people complaining to the police about having encountered someone naked or partly undressed will see that the police are responding to them and the homeless person gets to do what he needs to do without having court interaction.
This type of police action might not be specified in any legal codes, but that does not make it illegal. Law enforcement officers have broad duties to protect the public and maintain peace and order. So, transporting folks to places where they can wash or get changed or sleep is something that police can do, even though it is neither something they are prohibited from doing nor something that they are required to do.
[i] When researching case law about public nudity in any books by the Thomson West publishing company, which publishes the majority of case reporters, you will find it categorized as “obscenity key 3” and “obscenity key 5”.
[ii] 67 C.J.S. Obscenity § 9 (2005).
[iii] Townsend v. State, 750 N.E.2d 416 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001).
[iv] People v. Huffman, 702 N.W.2d 621 (Mich. Ct. App. 2005).
[v] Cotai, CA., Municipal Code § 9.33.020 (2005).
[vi] Independence, MN., Code of Ordinances § 12.06.006 (2005).
[vii] Grand Rapids, MN., City Code § 42.102 (2005).
[viii] Charleston, SC., City Code § 21.166 (2005).