People v. Jeffrey Williams: “Open” v. “Indecent” Exposure

The Michigan Court of Appeals case of People v. Jeffrey Williams analyzes the question of whether in the misdemeanor of indecent exposure an “open exposure” occurs when only the defendant witnesses the exposure. This blog article will break down that questions.

Michigan Indecent Exposure Law

In Michigan, it is a misdemeanor for any person to knowingly make any open or indecent exposure of his or her person of another person. This misdemeanor can result in up to one year in jail, fines and costs, or probation. MCL 750.335a.

What Happened in People v. Williams

In this case, the defendant’s niece was taking a bath inside a private residence. The defendant went inside the bathroom and was asked to leave by the niece. The defendant did not leave, and instead proceeded to draw a picture of her, which included her private parts.

The defendant originally pleaded guilty to accosting a child for immoral purposes, but the district court did not accept the plea. The prosecutor then filed an amended charge to indecent exposure.

Defendant then filed a motion to dismiss the new charge, arguing that the exposure of his niece was not “open” as they were inside a private residence and not in public.

The question in this case boiled down to whether there was an “open” or an “indecent” exposure. The defendant could have been found guilty if found to have committed either an “open” or an “indecent” exposure. The Court believed that under the statute, an “open” and “indecent” exposure were two different concepts the Court would go on to define.

Open Exposure

The first questions for the Court was whether there was an “open” exposure.

The word “open” is not defined in the indecent exposure statute. The Court looked to a past case, People v. Vronko, which ruled that an exposure in public need not be actually witnessed by another person, so long as the exposure could reasonably be seen by another person. The purpose behind this rule is to protect people in the general public who may be offended by an exposure.

Therefore, the test for whether there is an “open” exposure is whether anyone might reasonably have been expected to observe the exposure and, if so, whether the person might reasonably have been expected to have been offended by what was seen in the exposure.

By this definition, the Court believed, the defendant was not guilty of making an open exposure, because there was no chance anyone aside from the defendant would have seen the exposure, and the defendant, as the only witness of the exposure, could not have reasonably been offended by the exposure.

The last question for the Court became whether the exposure was “indecent.”

Indecent Exposure

The Court concluded there was also no indecent exposure.

The Court looked to the Vronko case again for guidance with definition. The Court there defined “indecent” exposure as an intentional exposure of part of one’s body (private parts, genitals, etc.) in a place where such exposure is likely to be an offense against the generally accepted standards of decency in a community.

Under this definition, the defendant’s conduct did not constitute indecent exposure because him and the niece were not in a public place. The defendant’s conduct did not involve an exposure that could violate this standard – as the defendant himself would not be offended by the exposure. (Just to note, this is not saying the defendant’s conduct did not violate a different criminal law, the court was just saying it did not violate the indecent exposure statute.)

As such, the Court ruled in the defendant’s favor, and found there was no indecent exposure.

Takeaways From the Case

People v. Williams contains a good discussion of “open” v. “indecent” exposure. Contrast this case with People v. Neal, in which the defendant himself exposed himself to another person inside a private residence. The defendant in Neal argued that he was not guilty of indecent exposure because he was not in public. The Court did not agree with him, ruling that being in public is not a requirement for a conviction, and the person he exposed himself was offended and could have been reasonably expected to be offended.

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