California Peeping Tom laws make it a misdemeanor offense to spy on, or to take pictures of someone, in a private place without that person’s consent. A conviction carries a potential sentence of up to 6 months in jail and fines of up to $1000.00.
Technically, these laws are known as:
- Penal Code 647(i) — “peeking while loitering” and
- Penal Code 647(j) — criminal “invasion of privacy.”
To help you better understand these laws, our California criminal defense lawyers will discuss:
- 1. What are California’s Peeping Tom laws?
- 2. What are the potential penalties?
- 3. What are the best defenses to a peeping tom charge?
- 4. Are there applicable federal laws?
- 5. Can the record be expunged?
1. What are California’s Peeping Tom laws?
California Penal Code 647(i) and (j) set forth California’s “Peeping Tom” laws. They prohibit certain invasive acts against people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy. 1 2
Let’s take a brief look at each of these crimes.
1.1. Penal Code 647(i) – peeking while loitering
California Penal Code 647i “peeking while loitering” is the classic “Peeping Tom” law. PC 647(i) makes it a crime to peek in the door or window of any inhabited structure while loitering on private property.
Example: Tom sneaks into his neighbor’s backyard. While there, he looks into their bedroom window and watches his neighbors make love.
Specifically, someone commits “peeking while loitering” when he or she:
- Delays, lingers, prowls, or wanders on someone else’s private property;
- Without a lawful purpose for being there; and
- While there peeks in the door or window of an inhabited building or structure on the property.3
A building or structure is inhabited if someone uses it as a dwelling. It does not matter whether anyone is inside at the time of the alleged peeking.4
1.2. Penal Code 647(j) – criminal “invasion of privacy”
Penal Code 647(j) is California’s criminal “invasion of privacy” law. It prohibits three distinct but related crimes:
- Using a device such as a telescope or binoculars to invade a person’s privacy;
- Secretly photographing or recording on videotape a person’s body under or through his or her clothing for the purpose of sexual arousal or sexual gratification; or
- Secretly recording with a video camera or photographing another person in a private room (such as a dressing room) in order to view that person’s body or undergarments.5
Example: While shopping at The Grove, Billy sticks his phone under a girl’s short skirt and records a short video. This “upskirt” video is an invasion of privacy under Penal Code 647(j).
2. What are the potential penalties?
2.1.Jail time and fine
Penal Code 647(i) and (j) are forms of “disorderly conduct” in California.6 As such, they are misdemeanors, punishable by:
- Up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.7
2.2. Increased penalties for a minor victim or subsequent offense
Penalties for the invasion of privacy under Penal Code 647(j) increase when:
- It is the defendant’s second or subsequent PC 647(j) offense,8 or
- The victim is under the age of 18.9
Under either of these circumstances, invasion of privacy can be punished in California by:
- Up to one (1) year in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $2,000.10
2.3. Probation instead of jail for “Peeping Tom” offenses
As with any misdemeanor offense, the judge can sentence to the defendant to misdemeanor (“summary”) probation instead of jail.11
A defendant sentenced to probation will serve little or no jail time. But he or she will have to comply with certain conditions of probation. These often include:
- Payment of victim restitution,12 and/or
- Reporting periodically to the court for progress reports.
If the defendant violates these conditions, the judge might revoke probation and send the defendant to jail.13
2.4. Is a “Peeping Tom” convict required to register as a sex offender?
No. Conviction of a “Peeping Tom” offense does not require registration as a California sex offender.14
This applies equally to people who plead “guilty” or nolo contendere (“no contest”) to Penal Code 647(i) or (j).
3. What are the best defenses to a Peeping Tom charge?
California’s “Peeping Tom” laws have many parts. The prosecutor must prove each of these “elements of the crime” beyond a reasonable doubt.
The best defense to California’s Peeping Tom laws will depend on the specific crime charged.
Below we discuss some of the most common legal defenses unique to Penal Code 647(i) and (j).
For a discussion of general legal defenses, you may wish to read our article on “Common Legal Defenses to California Crimes.”
3.1. Legal defenses to “peeking while loitering”
Legal defenses to Penal Code 647(i), peeking while loitering, include taking the position that:
- The defendant was not on private property;
- The defendant was not loitering;
- The defendant had a lawful purpose for being on the property; and/or
- The building into which the defendant peeked was not inhabited.15
3.2. Legal defenses to criminal invasion of privacy
Depending on the specific act alleged, legal defenses to Penal Code 647(j), invasion of privacy often include demonstrating that:
- The alleged victim did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy;
- The alleged victim consented to be photographed or recorded;
- The defendant did not intend to invade anyone’s privacy; and/or
- The defendant did not intend to arouse or gratify him- or herself sexually.16
4. Are there applicable federal laws?
18 U.S. Code 1801 is the United States’ “video voyeurism” law. 18 USC 1801 makes it a federal crime to knowingly and intentionally:
- Capture an image of a private area of an individual,
- Without that person’s consent,
- Under circumstances in which that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.17
A person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” if a reasonable person would believe that his or her private parts would not be visible or photographed by the public.18
Examples of federal territories
Examples of federal territories include (without limitation):
- Post offices,
- National parks,
- Federal courtrooms,
- Most public airports, and
- Veterans’ Administration buildings.19
Penalties for “video voyeurism”
Violation of 18 USC 1801 is punishable by:
- A fine of up to $100,000, and/or
- Imprisonment of up to one year.20
5. Can the record be expunged in California?
Yes, a Peeping Tom conviction can be expunged if the defendant:
- successfully completed any probation (or obtained an early termination of probation), and
- is not currently:
- facing criminal charges,
- on probation, or
- serving a criminal sentence21
And if the case was dismissed – meaning there was no conviction – the defendant can get the arrest record sealed.
The biggest benefit of expungements and seals is that defendants do not have to tell future employers about the case.
Learn about how to get criminal records expunged in California. And learn how to get arrest record sealed in California.
For additional help…
If you have been charged under Penal Code 647(i) or (j), we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.
Our criminal defense attorneys have offices throughout California, including many in Los Angeles, Glendale, Orange, Pomona, Torrance, San Bernardino, Ventura, and San Diego counties, as well as Central California and the Bay Area.
We also have offices in Las Vegas and Reno if you have been charged with “Peering, peeping or spying into a dwelling” in Nevada (NRS 200.603).
- California Penal Code 647
- Same. See also Penal Code
- Penal Code 647(i), endnote 1. See also California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) 2916. Loitering: Peeking.
- CALCRIM 2916. See also Penal Code 459, California’s “burglary” law.
- Penal Code 647(j), endnote 1; see also In re M.H., 1 Cal. App. 5th 699, 205 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1 (2016).
- Other forms of disorderly conduct prohibited by Penal Code 647 include (without limitation):
- Penal Code 647; Penal Code 19.
- Penal Code 647(l)(1)
- Penal Code 647(l)(2)
- Penal Code 647(l)(1) and (2).
- Penal Code 1203 PC.
- Penal Code section 1203 (b)(2)(D).
- Penal Code 1203.3 PC.
- See Penal Code 290(c).
- See also Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 103 S. Ct. 1855 (1983).
- See Penal Code 647(j)
- 18 USC 1801(a)
- 18 USC 1801(b)(5)
- 18 USC 1801(a).