Private Property Can Be a “Public Place” under the Indecent Exposure Statute

linkedin
Share on Google+
Share on Reddit
Share on Tumblr
Download PDF

Several recent news reports have involved people removing their clothes in their own homes or on their own property, but in view of neighbors or passers-by. For example, Charlotte’s “naked neighbor” controversy is discussed here, while Rowan County’s back yard bandit case is discussed here. Are people who expose their genitals to public view while on their own property in a “public place” as required by the indecent exposure statute, G.S. 14-190.9? Yes, ruled the court of appeals this week.

Facts. The case is State v. Pugh. It arose one afternoon when a woman and her young daughter saw a neighbor masturbating in front of his garage. According to the court, the garage “was directly off a public road and . . . was in full view from the street” as well as from the woman’s house. Some additional information about the layout of the area is available in this Fayetteville Observer article.

Procedural history. The defendant was charged with felony indecent exposure in the presence of a minor under G.S. 14-190.9(a1). He was convicted, sentenced to probation and required to register as a sex offender, and appealed.

Defendant’s argument. On appeal, he argued that “because he was on his own property, he was not in a ‘public place.’” Therefore, he contended, his motion to dismiss should have been granted and his objection to the jury instructions given by the trial judge should have been sustained.

Ruling. The court of appeals disagreed, ruling that a public place is any place “viewable from any location open to the view of the public at large.” Applying that principle to the facts of the case, “Defendant was standing on his own property, but his exposure was in a ‘public place’ because he was easily visible from the public road, from the [driveway he shared with the woman] and from his neighbor’s home.”

The court relied primarily on State v. Fusco, 136 N.C. App. 268 (1999), where it upheld the indecent exposure conviction of a man who was masturbating on a creek embankment within view of nearby homeowners. Fusco does contain language similar to the language used to define “public place” in Pugh, though the facts were quite different. The embankment doesn’t seem to have been the defendant’s own property, and the embankment was a place where children frequently played.

The court also cited State v. King, 268 N.C. 711 (1966) (holding that the defendant’s car was a “public place” when it was parked in a business’s parking lot). Perhaps because it is unpublished, the court did not cite State v. Williams, 190 N.C. App. 676 (2008) (unpublished) (affirming an inmate’s conviction of indecent exposure where he exposed himself using “a food slot visible from the outside walkway” because “a reasonable probability existed that members of the general public [present in the jail] . . . might have witnessed defendant expose himself”).

Comment. Pugh helps to clarify the law, but it doesn’t answer every possible question about what counts as a “public place.” For example, the defendant in Pugh was not inside his house at the time of the exposure. I suggested in this prior post that being inside doesn’t preclude prosecution, and the test applied in Pugh supports that conclusion, but Pugh doesn’t squarely address the issue. Furthermore, the opinion doesn’t address whether a person may lawfully expose his or her genitals on a portion of his or her property that is visible to neighbors but not from any public street or other public property. The clues the Pugh opinion gives on that issue point in different directions. One the one hand, a neighbor’s home is not open to “the public at large.” On the other, the Pugh court affirmed in part because the defendant was visible “from his neighbor’s home.” [See the comments below concerning statutory changes effective December 1, 2015, that are pertinent to this post.]

2 comments on “Private Property Can Be a “Public Place” under the Indecent Exposure Statute

  1. The General Assembly addressed this issue this year in House Bill 792 which became Session Law 2015-250 and it went into effect Dec 1st.

    SECTION 2. G.S. 14‑190.9 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:
    “(a2) Unless the conduct is prohibited by another law providing greater punishment, any person who shall willfully expose the private parts of his or her person in the presence of anyone other than a consenting adult on the private premises of another or so near thereto as to be seen from such private premises for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
    SECTION 2.1. G.S. 14‑190.9 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:
    “(a5) Unless the conduct is prohibited by another law providing greater punishment, any person located in a private place who shall willfully expose the private parts of his or her person with the knowing intent to be seen by a person in a public place shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
    SECTION 2.3. G.S. 14-190.9 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:
    “(a4) Unless the conduct is punishable by another law providing greater punishment, any person at least 18 years of age who shall willfully expose the private parts of his or her person in a private residence of which they are not a resident and in the presence of any other person less than 16 years of age who is a resident of that private residence shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

    • Thanks for this comment. I meant to mention this bill in the post, but forgot to do so. Each of the three new subsections are rather limited in scope. The first applies only when a person is on or near the private property “of another” and requires a sexual purpose; the second requires a “knowing intent” to be seen by a person who must be in a “public place”; and the third applies only to exposures to young people in their own homes. The second one likley covers the naked-neighbor-at-the-storm-door scenario but I don’t think any of them clearly address the naked-in-the-backyard scenario.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.