Indecent Exposure – Lewd Conduct in Michigan
Indecent Exposure in Michigan: The Bare Facts.
Grand Rapids Criminal Defense Lawyer Bruce Alan Block.
A Brief History of Indecency Laws.
“In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . on the sixth day God created man in his own image, male and female he created them, and they were naked and without shame.” Genesis I
At one end of the clothing spectrum are the primitive tribal people groups who live in warm, humid climates where clothing is not necessary for warmth or protection. At the other end of this spectrum is modern man. It seems the more civilized a person becomes the greater the effort and money expended to hide their body. Standards of what is 'decent' and thus 'indecent' varies greatly by location and century. Humans have progressed from living in a state of total nakedness up and through the layer upon layer of clothing worn during the 1700-1800's.
Women's clothing fashions have changed the most over time. In the servant and slave classes the female breasts were often left exposed, or painted and adorned (ancient Egypt). Greek women are depicted in an ancient mural wearing a tunic type of garment that left a single breast exposed. Athletes in the 720 B.C.. Athens, Greece Olympics competed fully nude, however, women were not allowed to participate or be a spectator. The Greek word 'gymnasium' means a place to "train in the nude."
Indigenous groups in North America, South America, Africa, the Pacific Islands and other less traveled areas have little or no need for clothing to protect themselves from the elements. For thousands of years, women in these areas, including many native American Indians, ran around bare-breasted with perhaps a grass skirt – or not – and thought little of it. In some remote tribes yet today, men and women work and live together completely naked.
Between 1700 and 1900 A.D., a woman's bare legs, bare ankles, or bare shoulders were considered much more risqué than a bared breast. As time progressed, the moral virtues of the Victorian Era (1837 – 1901) spread the nude and lewd taboo. Human attire reached the pinnacle of absurdity during this time, when layer upon layer of clothing was worn (it could take an hour to get dressed) no matter the temperature. Any small exposure of flesh was indecent, especially a woman’s bare ankle. In fact, the legs of chair and tables were covered so as to not offend the unsuspecting.
Indecency Laws Today.
Except for designated beaches in a few states such as Florida and California, it remains indecent (and thus illegal) for a woman to go topless in most of the United States. Likewise, it is prohibited that a man or woman show their genitals or pubic area in public (unless of course they are on a nude beach or at a private nudist club).
There are parts of the United States where women have filed lawsuits claiming they are being treated differently then men and thus discriminated against. In 1992, a New York Appeals Court ruled that the state's criminal indecent exposure laws did not ban a woman from exposing her breasts in public, so long as the exposure was not done for commercial reasons. Almost every lawsuit that has been filed by women seeking topless freedom has been won, including such unlikely places such as Ohio, Washington D.C., Key West, New York, Oregon, New Orleans and more. In these places a woman can – in theory anyway – be topless in public.
However, even in such places it is probably not a wise choice to drive, walk down the sidewalk, or ride the subway with bared breasts. Because, if a topless woman causes a traffic backup or a public disturbance (i.e. from gawkers), the woman can be asked to cover her bosom or leave the area, not because she is female (and thus has breasts), but rather, because her bare breasts are causing a disturbance.
Some beaches may tolerate topless sunbathers, but most of the Americas will not allow breasts to be bared anywhere. In contrast, much of the European world allows topless sunbathing at pools, parks, and beaches. Many locations have designated areas for complete nudity. At the opposite extreme, most Muslim countries require that women cover their arms, legs, and heads; in some places women are required to cover their face with a burqa (a head-to-toe covering with a small window for the eyes). Moslem teachings provide that modesty is an important virtue and insufficient dress is forbidden.
England and Canada allow women to be topless anywhere in public.
A true, amusing story from Canada. A Canadian woman got tired of hearing her neighbor's grandson drive an ATV up and down their quiet street handled the problem in her own unique way. Each time the 5 year old boy drove by she went out into her front yard with bared breasts. Apparently, the horrified grandparents of the boy quickly pulled him inside the house.
The United States of America was founded in the name of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and while the Constitution provided for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, it did not include freedom from clothing.
Local Decency Standards Vary Greatly.
Nearly every developed or modern nation has criminalized public nudity, although local standards of decency vary dramatically.
One community in Florida tried to scientifically determine how much of the female breast could be shown and remain 'decent.' The ordinance allows 3/4 of the female breast to be shown – sans nipple or areola (there is an exception for nursing mothers): "Each female person may determine which 1/4 of her breast surface area…contiguous to and containing the areola is to be covered."
The ordinance also has a lengthy (and rather unintelligible) paragraph that tries to define the human buttocks and the amount that can be legally displayed:
"Buttocks: The area at the rear of the human body (sometimes referred to as the glutaeus maximus) which lies between two imaginary straight lines running parallel to the ground when a person is standing, the first or top such line being 1/2 inch below the top of the vertical cleavage of the nates (i.e., the prominence formed by the muscles running from the back of the hip to the back of the leg) and the second or bottom such line being 1/2 inch above the lowest point of the curvature of the fleshy protuberance (sometimes referred to as the gluteal fold), and between two imaginary straight lines, one on each side of the body (the "outside lines"), which outside lines are perpendicular to the ground and to the horizontal lines described above and which perpendicular outside lines pass through the outermost point(s) at which each nate meets the outer side of each leg."
The definition goes on and on. Seriously! We did not make this up – Public Nudity Ordinance.
Interestingly, in England it is only considered “indecent,” if a man exposes his genitals with the intent to 'cause alarm or distress.' The law only applies to men, as English lawmakers apparently recognize the fact that female genitalia are internal. Even though the breasts of women and men are anatomically identical – except for size – it remains indecent and unlawful in most of the civilized world for a woman to be out in public without covering her nipples and areolas. It is a little known fact that during and after the Victorian Era (1800 – 1900), men were also required to cover their chests when in the company of women until one very hot summer in New York the early 1920's. The "bare chestedness" men's movement swept most of the country and men without shirts in public became acceptable again.
Breastfeeding a Child in Michigan.
Over the years there has been concern that a woman breastfeeding a child in public might be considered to be engaged in lewd and indecent conduct. There have been well-publicized cases where a bus driver and a "big box" store called the police on a mother who was innocently breastfeeding her young infant on a bus or inside of a store. At the time, there were about 45 states that had some form of breastfeeding protection. In 2014, Michigan passed the "Breastfeeding Anti-Discrimination Act" to protect nursing mothers breastfeeding a child in public or in a public place, such as a restaurant, grocery store, bus, etc. Under the new law, a nursing mother cannot be criminally charged for indecent exposure or disorderly conduct if her nipple or areola are visible while breastfeeding her infant. The Breastfeeding Anti-Discrimnation Act gives Michigan women the right to nurse a child in any place that is open to the public, including stores, courthouses, restaurants, buses, and the like. Under the breastfeeding-is-allowed law, owners and operators of stores and places open to the general public cannot refuse to provide services, sell goods, nor deny privileges or accommodations to women simply because they might be breastfeeding. Also prohibited are any signs that attempt to prohibit public nursing of children.
The breastfeeding law allows a woman who is subjected to breast feeding discrimination to file a civil lawsuit seeking injunctive relief, actual damages or at least $200, and full reimbursement for legal costs.
Webster’s Diction defines indecent exposure as the "intentional exposure of part of one’s body (as in breasts or genitals) in a place where such exposure is likely to be an offense against the generally accepted standards of decency.” Until 1958, it was illegal in Michigan for a male to be naked around a female, even if the exposure occurred at a private nudist resort.
While mooning or flashing your boobs at friends may be amusing, Michigan law treats such exposure as indecent exposure. There are specific laws that forbid the public showing of the male or female genitals, buttocks, and the female breasts.
So what then, is "Indecent Exposure" in Michigan? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. What is "indecent' depends on where you live and who you ask. Many women likely consider a 'plumber's crack' to be indecent, although we are not aware of anyone actually being arrested and prosecuted for this heinous offense.
Going topless at Holland Beach or Grand Haven State Park is a surefire way to get charged with indecent exposure. We are not aware of any public beaches in Michigan that permit women to go topless or nude. No doubt there are remote places where topless or nude sunbathing occurs and is ignored – so long as there are no complaints. It is generally against the law to reveal prohibited 'parts' or be naked if someone could potentially see you from a public vantage point. For example, you cannot walk the trash out to the garage nude if the garage door is open and someone might see you, nor can you sit nude in your living room without the blinds pulled because someone who walked up to your house (i.e. to sell you something) might see you. Likewise you cannot answer the door of your house or hotel room topless or nude.
Even though there is a statewide ban against indecent exposure, it is just as easy to get arrested for violating a city, township, or campus ordinance. The City of Grand Rapids public indecency ordinance eloquently states: "No person shall. . .make an indecent exposure of his or her person". Note the utter lack of any definition as to what is 'indecent'.
The City of Newaygo’s indecency ordinance provides: "No person shall engage in any indecent conduct in any public place." The City of Wyoming prohibits nude exposure and skinny dipping: "It shall be unlawful for any person to swim or bathe in the nude in any public place or place open to the public."
Most college campuses have a similar laws or student code. You may have heard of students getting charged with urinating in public (a/k/a indecent exposure). Some tell of getting arrested for indecent exposure when walking out of a dark alley because police assumed they were urinating!
Of course, there are certain acts that are certain to be considered indecent, such as: urinating in public, mooning, flashing your breasts, buttocks, genitals or pubic area, or walking topless down most if not all of Michigan's beaches.
Aggravated Indecent Exposure.
Michigan law also criminalizes indecent behavior that goes beyond simple exposure of specified body parts. Aggravated Indecent Exposure is where a person fondles their genitals (including the female breasts/nipples) or has sexual contact. Although there is no definition of 'fondling,' based on the very broad definition of 'indecent exposure,' we are sure that repeatedly massaging or touching private parts in public will suffice. Some examples would include: consensual intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, and most sexual conduct if it occurs in an area where an innocent person might stumble upon the couple in flagrante delicto.
Penalties for Indecent Exposure and Aggravated Indecent Exposure.
Concerned that indecent exposure was only a simple 93-day misdemeanor, the Michigan Legislature changed the law in 2005 to make Indecent Exposure a 1-year misdemeanor, that carries a possible penalty of up to 1 year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Aggravated indecent exposure is a 2-year high misdemeanor, meaning you can go to jail for up to two years and/or pay a $2,000 fine
Not only can a conviction for indecent exposure cost a lot of money and leave you with a criminal conviction, but it could cost you your freedom. Worse yet, you may have to disclose this conviction to potential employers, such as a daycare providers, schools, teaching jobs, or volunteer organizations, all of whom will decline to hire or allow you to volunteer.
You may be surprised to know that you do not have to be topless or nude in public to be Indecent:
- A Michigan man whose male 'part' was visible through his unzipped pants was convicted of indecent exposure.
- A Virginia man was convicted (2009) of indecent exposure for walking nude from his bedroom to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee at 5:30 a.m. He was allegedly unaware he could be seen from someone outside the home – although this fact was hotly contested at trial.
- A Michigan woman was arrested for indecent exposure for sunbathing in a bikini in her front yard (neighbors complained that the string bikini was too small for her rather larger endowed figure)
- A woman rafting down the Muskegon river climbed out and 'went' behind some bushes in an unpopulated area. A DNR officer wrote her up for indecent exposure. She protested and was told she should 'pee in the river like everyone else does.'
- A woman was arrested and charged with indecent exposure for dancing in a bar empty of patrons and closed for the night. She was wearing underwear, fully clothed, and dancing – arguably seductively – for her husband. The only way to possibly view the 'lewd' action was to peep through a small backdoor window over 75 feet away.
- But what if it is dark, there are no bathrooms for miles, and you really have to go? A Michigan man was charged with public indecency when he stopped to take a leak on the side of the highway. A park ranger arrested him for urinating in public/indecent exposure even though it was pitch dark and there were no bathrooms or people for miles.
No One has to Witness the Indecent or Aggravated Indecent Exposure.
The indecent or aggravated exposure does not have to be witnessed by someone else. The crime is committed if you expose yourself, masturbate, have intercourse, etcetera, in a place where an unsuspecting person might stumble upon you. Thus, the 'quickie' in the backseat of the car with your girlfriend/boyfriend could land you in serious legal trouble.
No one has to actually witness the crime, if they could 'reasonably infer' what was going on. In one case, a witness saw no actual flesh but testified that she saw the defendant with his hand in his lap 'going at it like gang busters.' This testimony was sufficient for a conviction for aggravated indecent exposure.
In a case we handled, a man was at a park that had shuttered its bathrooms for the winter. He had a rather weak bladder and really had to go. He did not want to pee behind a tree as there were several cars nearby. He simply could not hold it long enough to drive to a gas station. In bladder desperation, he slumped down in his car seat and neatly filled a 20 ounce water bottle. A woman and her daughter about 75 feet away saw the man's hand in his lap 'doing something' and helpfully called the cops. The man was arrested and charged with indecent exposure – despite the fact that the witnesses saw nothing, his explanation of the dire circumstances, and production of the neatly filled bottle.
Indecent Exposure and the Michigan Sex Offender Registry Act (SORA).
Multiple convictions for indecent exposure or any sexually related crime can lead to being charged as a sexually delinquent person. Being a "sexual delinquent" person is a crime itself. It is a felony that carries not only negative stigma, but serious consequences. While you are not considered a sex offender, a conviction for being a sexual delinquent person can preclude you from getting jobs teaching, daycare, or driving a bus, will cost money in legal fees and court costs, and may subject you to a long jail or prison term.
Under earlier sex offender laws, you were required to register under the Michigan Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) if you had three convictions for indecent exposure, or two indecent exposures plus an Aggravated Indecent Exposure conviction (see our Sex Offenses page for more details). If convicted of a listed offense, you will be required to register as a sex offender and have your name, picture, and address put all over the Internet.The Sex Offender Registry is for those persons convicted of a sexual offense that the State believes poses a menace and danger to the health, safety, morals, and welfare of the citizens, particularly children. The registration requirements are onerous, tasking, and permit the state to regulate where you can live, work, attend church, and what you do, as you are considered a threat to the community.
Michigan also criminalizes "gross indecency." These laws originate from 18th Century England, and make consenting sexual conduct between two adults, whether in public or private, a felony. Gross indecency charges were historically used to prosecute homosexual and lesbian conduct. However, 'gross indecency' can occur between a man and woman or a husband and wife.
The United States Supreme Court threw out a gross indecency law from Texas, but Michigan's law is still on the books. Gross indecency is a felony with a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine. If you were a sexually deviant person and commit a new crime you could be sentenced to LIFE IN PRISON and be placed on the Sex Offender Registry.
If You are Charged with Indecent Exposure.
It might seem like the indecent exposure ticket is no big deal. So you were caught flashing your tits, messing around with your girlfriend/boyfriend, or taking a leak in public. No big deal right? – WRONG.
Hopefully this page has opened your eyes to the fact that indecent exposure is not a simple crime. We have heard of many stories where otherwise qualified applicants have been denied jobs at daycare centers or certifications to operate a daycare center, and been prohibited from driving a school bus because of an indecent exposure conviction on their record from years earlier. An indecent exposure conviction will probably keep you from being able to volunteer at your church nursery or summer camp.
If you are charged with any type of indecent exposure such as: flashing your boobs, urinating in public, streaking, being naked in public, or a similar crime, get yourself an experienced lawyer to help you. Contact our Indecent Exposure Lawyer at (616) 676-8770. We are located in Grand Rapids, just miles away from many colleges and universities in Western Michigan.
Bruce Alan Block, PLC
Attorney and Counselor at Law
1155 East Paris Ave. SE, Suite 300, Grand Rapids, MI 49546
Phone: (616) 676-8770
Serving Clients throughout Western Michigan, in Grand Rapids, Ada, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Wyoming, Byron Center, Lowell, Caledonia, Cascade, Rockford, Holland, Grand Haven, Grandville, Kent, Barry, Ottawa, Muskegon and Ionia County.
We represent college students from Calvin College, Aquinas, Grand Valley State University, Cornerstone University, Ferris, Grand Rapids Community College, Michigan State University, and Western Michigan University.