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Peeping Tom Laws

Review of PC 647(i) & PC 647(j) California's Peeping Tom Laws

In the state of California, it's a crime to spy on or take photos of someone in a private setting without their knowledge and consent. We commonly refer to these as "peeping tom" crimes.

A peeping tom, also called a “voyeur,” is someone, typically male, who secretly watches occupants of a house, room, or another private place, normally through windows at night, for the purpose of sexual gratification purposes.

Peeping Tom Laws in California
PC 647(i) peeking while loitering law in often used by prosecutors in "peeping tom" cases.

In California, there is not a specific Penal Code Section dealing with peeping toms and voyeurs, rather prosecutors use two different but similar disorderly conduct laws to file charges against someone which are reviewed below.

If you are convicted of one of these offenses, you could be facing up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1000 per offense.

Let's talk about California's peeping tom laws, what they entail, and some common defenses if you're charged with one or more of these crimes.

As noted, the peeping tom laws refer to two separate but relatable offenses on California's law books—both of which are misdemeanor offenses.

These offenses are PC 647(i) peeking while loitering and PC 647(j) invasion of privacy.

Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will take a take a closer look at each law below.

Peeking while Loitering Law - Penal Code 647(i) PC

Peeking while loitering (also known as "prowling") is a form of misdemeanor disorderly conduct. PC 647(i) peeking while loitering is the traditional “peeping tom” law.

A person may be charged with this crime if they look into someone's home (i.e., through the door or window) while lingering on their private property without any legitimate purpose for being there.

The nature of this offense means the offender must actually be on someone else's private property to be charged with the crime.

Further, offender doesn't necessarily have to see anything private to be charged with this crime—they simply need to be attempting to do so.

In order for the prosecution to obtain a conviction, they must be able to prove several factors, including:

  • You delayed, lingered, or wandered on someone's private property;
  • You didn't have a lawful reason to be there; and
  • You peeked in a door or window on the inhabited structure.

A structure or building is considered inhabited if someone uses it as a dwelling place. It simply does not matter if anyone is inside at the time of the alleged peeking offense.

Some examples to illustrate: 

  • If someone sneaks up to the window of a private residence and looks in to try and view someone undressing, they can be charged with peeking while loitering—even if they didn't actually see anything. But if the person is on the premises to do maintenance and happens to see someone dressing through the window, they are not guilty of the crime because they have a legitimate reason for being there;
  • If a person is sunbathing nude in their backyard and a neighbor views them from over the fence of their own property, it is not considered peeking while loitering because a) the person viewing is on their own property and b) the sunbather is outside in public view.

Common Defenses to Peeking while Loitering

Your attorney may defend against the charges by demonstrating that you had a lawful or express purpose for being on the property (i.e., you weren't loitering), that you didn't intend to peek, that the property was vacant at the time, or that you were not on private property at the time.

Further, as noted above, the prosecutor has to prove several elements of the crime for a conviction. Perhaps we can make a reasonable challenge against one or more of these factors, such as:

  • You were not loitering;
  • The structure you were peeking into was not inhabited.

Each case is unique and will require a thorough review of the details in order to determine an appropriate defense strategy.

Invasion of Privacy Law - Penal Code 647(j) PC

Invasion of privacy occurs when someone secretly intrudes on or takes pictures or video recordings of another person who is in a place where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Invasion of Privacy Law - Penal Code 647(j) PC
Invasion of privacy occurs when pictures are secretly taken where someone expected privacy.

Often, it includes taking an image of someone's body under or through their clothing for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.

In most cases, invasion of privacy involves using a device like binoculars, a telescope, or a camera to view or record someone in a private setting, including a dressing room, without their consent.

Their goal is normally to view their body parts or even their undergarments.

This is the classic stick a cell phone under a female's skirt to record a quick video or take a picture.

In order to be convicted of Penal Code 647(j) invasion of privacy, the prosecution has to prove the following factors:

  • You deliberately looked through an opening or a hole;
  • You looked inside the interior of a bedroom, bathroom, dressing room, or other place where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy;
  • You used binoculars, cell phone, camera, telescope, binoculars, or another type of similar item, and
  • You had intent to invade someone's privacy when you looked.

Examples of invasion of privacy include: 

  • Secretly snapping pictures up a female's skirt;
  • Looking over the top of a bathroom stall while someone is using it;
  • Planting a hidden camera in a dressing room or locker room and recording people who use it;
  • Using binoculars or a telescope to view someone through the windows of their own home.

This last example is interesting because it acts almost as an extension of peeking while loitering.

If you are not on someone's private property while viewing them, you can't be charged with peeking while loitering—but if you view the same person from across the street using a telescope, you can be charged with invasion of privacy.

Common Defenses to Invasion of Privacy

To defend against this charge, we could use different strategies in an attempt to obtain the best possible outcome on the case. For example, we may attempt to demonstrate that you:

  • Had no intention of violating someone's privacy or gratifying yourself by what you observed,
  • That you had the person's permission to record/view them, or
  • That the offense took place in a location without a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The details of the invasion of privacy case will determine the strategy to fight the charges.

Related California Offenses

Peeping tom offenses are often charged in tandem with other criminal offenses depending on the case's circumstances. Some common related offenses include:

  • Lewd Conduct (Penal Code 647(a) PC)—public behavior of a sexual nature. For example, if someone exposed their genitals or masturbated while looking in someone's window, they could be charged with lewd conduct in addition to peeking while loitering.
  • Trespassing (Penal Code 602 PC)—entering or remaining on private property without permission or the right to do so. If there is insufficient evidence to charge someone with peeking while loitering, prosecutors may attempt to charge them with trespassing instead.

Do Peeping Tom Offenses Require Sex Offender Registration?

No, they normally do not. While these crimes are often tied to sexual gratification, they can be committed without that factor.

If you are convicted of one of these peeping tom offenses, you will not be required to register as a sex offender under California Penal Code 290 PC.

However, under California Penal Code 290.006 PC, the court could order you to register based on their discretion if they determine you committed these crimes as a result of sexual compulsion or for the purposes of sexual gratification.

What are the Penalties?

Both PC 647(i) peeking while loitering and PC 647(j) invasion of privacy are misdemeanor crimes in California that carry the same sentence if you are convicted.

Penalties for Peeping Tom Conviction
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This includes up to six months in county jail, a fine of up to $1,000 for each violation, or both jail and fine.

If the victim is a minor or defendant has a prior conviction for PC 647(i), the penalties will increase to up to one year in a county jail and a fine up to $2,000.

The judge could decide to grant probation rather than serving time in jail, but will have to follow specific conditions, in payment of victim restitution.

If you have been charged with either peeping tom law discussed above, then you should review you options with experienced legal counsel. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and you can contact us for an initial consultation at (310) 328-3776.

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