Indecent exposure in California is prosecuted as a sex crime. As a result, a conviction for indecent exposure can have devastating consequences.

A first-time conviction is only a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. However, a single conviction for indecent exposure can carry a mandated 10-year registration as a Tier One sex offender in California.

Registration as a sex offender can significantly impact your ability to smoothly live your life. This information will be visible to employers and landlords, and it can impact your ability to travel, get housing and safely live in your neighborhood.

What is ‘Indecent Exposure’ in California?

California defines indecent exposure as the act of willfully exposing your genitals in the presence of a person who might be offended, and intentionally directing their attention to your genitals for the purposes of:

  1. Your or someone else’s sexual gratification, or
  2. Sexually offending someone else.

Is it illegal to be naked in public in California?

Public nudity by itself isn’t illegal in California. The act must be willful. For example, if you are swimming in the ocean and snag your trunks on a piece of debris, it is not indecent exposure if you inadvertently expose yourself to people on the beach.

As well, the law defines indecent exposure as exposing your naked genitals. This means that it is not indecent exposure if you expose your underwear or a bare breast.

Can I be charged with indecent exposure if I was in my own house?

In cases where the alleged offender was at home, it all comes down to context.

California indecent exposure law says that indecent exposure can only happen in the presence of another person why might be annoyed or offended by it. This is important, because if you were in an area where you reasonably believed that others wouldn’t see you, then this is not indecent exposure.

This means that if, for example, someone was discreetly changing clothes in a bedroom at home and another person inadvertently walked into the room, then they cannot be found guilty of indecent exposure.

However, if a homeowner undressed in their kitchen in the company of houseguests who weren’t expecting this behavior and would likely be offended by it, then the homeowner might be guilty of indecent exposure.

Can I be charged with indecent exposure in my own backyard?

It depends on what your backyard looks like and how laid back your neighbors are. If you decide to do some nude sunbathing in the backyard, ensure that (1) your neighbors won’t be able to easily see you, and/or (2) if they do, they won’t be offended.

As we mentioned above, it’s perfectly legal to be nude outdoors in California. Cases only rise to the level of indecent exposure if someone exposes themselves in the presence of someone else likely to be offended by the act.

What happens if I expose myself accidentally?

To convict someone of indecent exposure, state law requires that the prosecution prove that the defendant intended to draw attention to their genitals. Similar to the swimming example above, this means that it is not indecent exposure if you accidentally expose yourself to someone.

Lastly, the law specifies that the exposure must be done for the purpose of sexual arousal or offending. For example, a teenager “mooning” traffic in an act of annoying people in a non-sexual way would not be guilty of indecent exposure.

‘Aggravated indecent exposure’ in California

In addition to “simple” exposure above, California also has a law against aggravated indecent exposure.

This is when someone does all of the elements above, but while also entering a home, trailer or building with residents in it, without the permission of the residents.

Local indecent exposure laws in California

Depending on where you live in California, your local community might have enacted separate ordinances related to indecent exposure (there is no such law in Ventura).

In cases where local ordinances are more restrictive than California state law (Penal Code 314), state law will take precedence, and your charges under the local ordinances will be rendered invalid.

Penalty for indecent exposure in California

A first-time conviction for indecent exposure (“simple exposure”) is a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to:

  1. Six months in county jail,
  2. A fine of $1,000, and
  3. 10-year minimum registration as a sex offender.

Aggravated indecent exposure is a “wobbler” in California, meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony in California, depending on the facts of the case. As a misdemeanor, it carries the same penalties as simple exposure above.

As a felony, aggravated indecent exposure is punishable by:

  1. Up to 3 years in state prison
  2. $10,000 in fines, and
  3. 10-year minimum registration as a sex offender

Repeat offenders also face stiffer penalties. If you have been convicted of indecent exposure before or have a prior conviction for lewd acts with a minor, your next arrest carries mandatory felony charges, with the penalties described above.

Indecent exposure and the California sex offender registry

While six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine might seem lenient, the most devastating part of an indecent exposure conviction is the 10-year mandatory registration as a sex offender in California.

The California sex offender registry is known to be particularly difficult for those who are on it. It will come up in background checks, meaning that it can make it difficult to obtain a job, a lease, loans or other major things.

As well, for those with professional licenses — dentists, nurses and doctors — appearance on a sex offender registry can often result in having your professional license stripped.

Failing to register as a sex offender is a wobbler (based on the severity of your original charge), and is punishable by up to 1 year in county jail (as a misdemeanor) or 3 years in state prison (as a felony).

Defending against indecent exposure charges

Because of the mandatory requirement to register as a sex offender, an indecent exposure conviction can severely impact your personal and professional life.

This is why it is so important to work together with a skilled criminal defense attorney to craft your defense. As we mentioned above, there is a number of things that the prosecution has to prove in order to secure an indecent exposure conviction, and an experienced attorney can work within the facts of the case to bring the truth to light.

Maybe it was accidental or you thought you were alone. It might’ve been dark out, and you might have been misidentified. An attorney can help you navigate all of these strategies in a courtroom.

With more than 30 years in Los Angeles and Ventura County courts, Mr. Helfend has defended a number of these cases, and he is prepared to represent you. Call 805-273-5611 for a free case evaluation.

Published May 21, 2018. Updated November 17, 2023.