In State v. Thompson, the WA Court of Appeals held that Washington’s Indecent Exposure Statute does not require the prosecution to prove the defendant was actual nude. Furthermore, the statute is not unconstitutionally vague.
Three 12-year-old girls playing in an apartment complex playground saw Mr. Thompson “touching his privates while looking at them” from his own apartment. One of the girls vividly described Thompson’s erect—but clothed—penis, and all three described him masturbating or touching himself over his clothing.
The State charged Thompson with felony indecent exposure under RCW 9A.88.010. Thompson twice moved to dismiss the charges. He argued that nudity is a required element of the crime. The trial court eventually granted the motion. It found that the law was unconstitutionally vague as applied to Thompson, who would not have known that his actions were prohibited.
The State appealled the dismissal of Thompson’s charges.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The WA Court of Appeals addressed whether the Indecent Exposure Statute was constitutionally vague.
“A statute can be challenged as being facially vague or vague as applied,” said the Court. Here, the Indecent Exposure statute in question states the following:
“A person is guilty of indecent exposure if he or she intentionally makes any open and obscene exposure of his or her person or the person of another knowing that such conduct is likely to cause reasonable affront or alarm. The act of breastfeeding or expressing breast milk is not indecent exposure.” ~RCW 9A.88.010(1)
The court reasoned that Thompson’s deconstruction of the phrase “open and obscene exposure of his or her person” fails for two reasons. First, the terms “nudity” or “nude” or “clothed” or “unclothed” do not appear anywhere in the statute. “If the legislature wanted to criminalize nudity, as Thompson claims, it certainly knew how,” said the Court.
Second, our courts consistently have defined the phrase “obscene exposure,” not by breaking down the definition into its constituent parts as Thompson does, but by interpreting the phrase as a whole. “In short, our courts have defined the phrase “obscene exposure,” not as nudity, but as a kind of wrongful exhibition,” said the Court.
The Court further reasoned that as a matter of law, Indecent Exposure requires, not only exhibition of the genitals, but obscenity, i.e., lascivious behavior judged as improper by society.
“It is the exhibition and the behavior which are the gravamen of the crime. There would be no basis to prosecute the athletic, artistic, humorous, or celebratory display of the body, which in most contexts “common decency” requires a person not to display, unless it would also be deemed lascivious (i.e., filled with sexual desire) and improper by the common person.” ~WA Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals concluded that under Thompson’s logic, a barely veiled erect penis used in the most sexualized and unwelcome manner imaginable would not be considered obscene because the genitalia is at least not naked. “Our interpretation of the statute does not allow such absurd results,” said the Court.
With that, the WA Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing Thompson’s charge at issue as unconstitutionally vague. It reversed and vacated Thompson’s Dismissal Order and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
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