Penal Code 647(a) PC | Engaging in Lewd Conduct

Penal Code 647(a) PC | Engaging in Lewd Conduct

Penal Code 647(a) PC is the California law that makes it a misdemeanor to engage in lewd or dissolute conduct in a public place, or in a place where there are other people present who may be offended. This law prohibits things like public masturbation, indecent exposure, soliciting prostitution, and public urination. Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes lewd conduct under 647(a) PC, potential sentences, and legal defenses.

What is Lewd Conduct?

The legal definition of lewd conduct is very broad under 647(a) PC. Essentially, it covers any behavior of a sexual nature that occurs in public and would likely offend others who witness it. Some examples include:

  • Public masturbation
  • Having sex in a public place
  • Mooning or flashing one’s genitals to others
  • Urinating or defecating in public
  • Soliciting an act of prostitution
  • Looking into a private residence with lewd intent

So even if the conduct doesn’t actually harm others, if it’s sexual in nature and occurs in public, it can potentially violate 647(a) PC. The “lewd intent” is what makes the conduct criminal. Things like public nudity at a beach may not necessarily be lewd under the law.

Lewd Conduct vs. Indecent Exposure

Lewd conduct is similar to indecent exposure under California law, but there are some differences. Indecent exposure requires exposing one’s genitals to others against their will. But lewd conduct doesn’t necessarily require exposure of private parts. Things like soliciting prostitution or masturbating in public can be lewd, even with clothes on.

Penalties for Lewd Conduct

A lewd conduct conviction under 647(a) PC is a misdemeanor offense. Potential penalties include:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • A fine of up to $1,000
  • Informal probation
  • Mandatory sex offender registration if the offense involved a minor under 14

If a person has a prior conviction for lewd conduct or certain other sex crimes, a second offense can be charged as a felony under California’s felony recidivism laws. This can lead to 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in state prison.

Legal Defenses

Some of the most common legal defenses to 647(a) PC allegations include:

  • Falsely accused – In sex crime cases it’s not uncommon for someone to be falsely accused out of anger, revenge, or mental illness. A skilled California sex crimes lawyer can often demonstrate reasonable doubt if the accuser has credibility issues or motives to fabricate allegations.
  • Mistaken identity – Eyewitness misidentification is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. If the defendant was not the person who engaged in the lewd conduct, an attorney can challenge the ID procedures that led to the defendant being accused.
  • No lewd intent – As mentioned, the “lewd intent” is what makes public nudity or other acts into criminal conduct. For example, a woman exposing her breast to feed a baby would not have lewd intent. Or public urination because no restroom was available. The lack of sexual intent can be a solid defense.

Penal Code 647(a) PC and the First Amendment

The First Amendment protects free speech and expression. So how can laws prohibiting lewd conduct be constitutional? The courts have held that lewd conduct crosses the line from protected expression into criminal conduct. The government has a reasonable interest in protecting morals and the orderly functioning of society.

However, defendants accused of lewd conduct can raise First Amendment arguments in certain cases. For example, the lewd intent may be absent if the conduct was done as part of a political protest or artistic performance. There are cases where courts have struck down charges because the conduct was expressive speech. But in most scenarios, lewd conduct in public is not considered protected speech.

Related Offenses

There are other California laws similar or related to Penal Code 647(a) PC that criminalize inappropriate sexual conduct. Some examples include:

Hiring an Attorney

Lewd conduct allegations must be taken seriously, even if it seems like a minor offense. Simply being arrested or charged with 647(a) PC can lead to reputation damage. And a conviction will mean having a permanent criminal record as a sex offender. The best defense is having an experienced lawyer challenge the charges.

A skilled California criminal defense attorney can often negotiate with prosecutors to get charges reduced or dismissed. This avoids the severe consequences of a conviction. For defendants who choose to go to trial, an attorney can argue there was no lewd intent or misidentification of the accused.

Every lewd conduct case has unique facts that require detailed scrutiny. The defense lawyer’s role is to thoroughly investigate the allegations, look for legal flaws in the prosecution’s case, and protect the defendant’s constitutional rights. With an aggressive defense, many people accused of violating 647(a) PC are able to achieve very favorable case outcomes.


  1. California v. LaRue (1972) 409 U.S. 109
  2. Barrows v. Municipal Court (1970) 1 Cal.3d 821