Updated July 1, 2020
Penal Code 647(i) PC makes it a misdemeanor in California to peek into an inhabited building while loitering on private property. The crime is referred to “peeking while loitering” or “unlawful peeking.” A conviction carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1000.00.
The offense is a form of disorderly conduct in California and also sometimes called “prowling“.
Examples of “peeping while loitering”
- Tom sneaks into his neighbor’s backyard. While in the yard, he looks through the bedroom window and watches as his neighbors make love.
- Carol suspects that her co-worker Betty is sleeping with Carol’s husband. When Betty calls in sick one day, Carol walks around Betty’s house and looks into every window to see if her husband is there.
Penalties for peeking while loitering
This offense is a misdemeanor. Unlawful peeking is punishable by:
- Up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000. 1 2 3
Alternatively, the judge might sentence the offender to summary (informal) probation.
If sentenced to probation, the defendant will serve little or no jail time. But there may be conditions to probation, such as:
- Payment of victim restitution,4 and
- Periodic “progress reports” to the judge.
If the defendant violates the conditions of probation, the judge can revoke the probation and sentence the defendant to jail.5
No obligation to register as a sex offender
Legal defenses to “Peeping Tom” charges in California
Legal defenses to California peeping Tom charges include demonstrating that:
- The defendant was not on private property;
- The defendant had a lawful purpose for being on the property;
- The defendant was not loitering; and/or
- The building the defendant was looking into wasn’t inhabited.
To help you better understand the crime of “peeking” under Penal Code 647(i), our California criminal defense lawyers discuss the following, below:
- 1. The legal definition of “peeking while loitering”
- 2. Penalties for “unlawful peeking” in California
- 3. Legal defenses to California Penal Code 647(i) peeking while loitering
- 4. Related offenses
Someone violates Penal Code 647(i), California’s “peeping Tom” law 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.6
A building or structure is inhabited if someone uses it as a dwelling. It does not matter whether someone is inside at the time of the alleged peeking.7
Note that Penal Code 647(i) is not a crime that requires “specific intent.” This means that it does not matter why (or when) the defendant decided to look through someone’s window or door.8 The defendant can be convicted of PC 647(i) even if he/she did not enter the property with the intention to loiter or peek.
Example: Walter is a cable installer who is installing cable in Jennifer’s condo. Jennifer is quite attractive. So after Walter finishes the job, he hangs around the courtyard and peeks into her bedroom window.
Walter did not originally enter the property with the intention of loitering or peeking. But once he finished the job, he no longer had a lawful purpose for being there. So by peeking into the window of an inhabited dwelling, he committed the crime of peeking while loitering.
Unlawful peeking under Penal Code 647(i) is a misdemeanor.9 It is punishable by:
- Up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.10
A “low-risk” California peeping defendant may be sentenced to misdemeanor probation instead of jail time.11 Misdemeanor probation is also known as “informal” probation or “summary” probation.
If sentenced to probation, the defendant will likely serve little or no jail time.
But the judge may impose various conditions on the probation. If the defendant does not follow them, the judge can revoke the probation and send the defendant to jail.12
Conditions of probation may include (but are not limited to):
- Paying restitution to the victim,13
- Staying away from the victim, and
- Appearing in court for periodic “progress reports.”
Who qualifies for misdemeanor probation?
Not all defendants qualify for misdemeanor probation. Eligibility depends on:
- The circumstances of the offense, and
- The defendant’s criminal history, if any. 14
People who are not usually entitled to probation include (without limitation):
- Anyone with two or more prior felony convictions;
- Anyone with one prior felony conviction for an offense during which the defendant was armed; or
- Anyone with a prior conviction for a serious felony such as rape, kidnapping or murder.15
A “Peeping Tom” conviction does not require the defendant to register as a California sex offender. Thus someone who is convicted of Penal Code 647(i) will not have his/her name posted on California’s “Megan’s Law” website.
This also applies if the defendant pleaded guilty or “no contest” (nolo contendere) to the charges.
To prove a defendant guilty of peeking under PC 647(i), the prosecutor needs to prove each “element of the crime.” If even one element can’t be proven, the defendant should be found “not guilty.”
Thus legal defenses to charges of peeking while loitering often include showing that:
The defendant did not look into a door or window.
Example: Billy was lingering behind some bushes outside someone else’s window to hide from a neighborhood bully. The only peeking he did was to look out from the bushes to see if the bully was gone.
The defendant was not on private property.
Example: Molly peeked through the ground floor window of an apartment from the public sidewalk outside the building.
The defendant wasn’t loitering.
Example: Carly cut across someone’s lawn as a shortcut on her way to work. As she passed by a window, she peeked inside out of curiosity. She then continued on her way.
Since Carly didn’t stop, she was not loitering. And because she was not loitering, she was not guilty of peeking while loitering.
The defendant had a lawful purpose for being on the property.
Example: Julius is telephone repairman. While he was inside an apartment building working on a line, he peeked into someone’s open window.
Julius had a lawful purpose for being on the property. Therefore, he wasn’t peeking while loitering.
The building the defendant peeked into wasn’t inhabited.
Example: Carl is homeless. He peeked into the window of an abandoned commercial building to see if it was suitable for “squatting.” Because the building was not inhabited, Carl is not guilty under PC 647(i).
Penal code 647(j) is California’s criminal “invasion of privacy” law. This section makes it a crime to:
- Look through a hole in a bathroom, dressing room or similar area with the intent to invade someone’s privacy;16, or
- Use a camera to look at someone’s body under or through clothing (a so-called “upskirt” violation).17
Invasion of privacy under Penal Code 647(j) is a misdemeanor.18 Potential punishment can include:
- Up to six (6) months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.19
Increased penalties for subsequent offenses or underage victims
However, punishment increases if:
- It is the defendant’s second or subsequent offense under PC 647(j),20 or
- The victim was a minor at the time of the offense.21
In either of the cases, the penalty for invasion of privacy can include:
- Up to one (1) year in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $2,000.22
The federal “video voyeurism” law, 18 USC 1801, prohibits invasion of privacy on a federally owned territory. Under 18 USC 1801, it is a crime knowingly and intentionally to:
- Capture an image of an individual’s “private area(s),”
- Without the person’s consent, and
- Under circumstances in which that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.23
Example: While waiting for a flight at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Burt shoots an “upskirt” photo of a young woman with his phone. He is guilty of “video voyeurism” under 18 USC 1801.
Federally owned territories include (but are not limited to):
- Government-operated airports,
- National parks,
- Post offices,
- Federal courthouses, and
- Veterans’ Administration buildings.
Violation of 18 USC 1801 is punishable by:
- A fine of up to $100,000, and/or
- Up to one year in federal prison.24
For additional help…
If you have been charged as a “Peeping Tom” under Penal Code 647(i), we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.
We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
We also have offices in Las Vegas and Reno that can help if you were accused of “peering, peeping or spying into a dwelling” in Nevada (NRS 200.603).
- California Penal Code 647: “ …[E]very person who commits any of the following acts is guilty of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor: … (i) Who, while loitering, prowling, or wandering upon the private property of another, at any time, peeks in the door or window of any inhabited building or structure, without visible or lawful business with the owner or occupant.”
- Penal Code 19 PC: “Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.”
- Penal Code 1203 (b)(2)(D),
- Penal Code 1203.3 PC.
- California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) 2916. Loitering: Peeking.
- Same. See also Penal Code 459, California’s burglary law.
- In re Joshua M. (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 743.
- See endnote 1.
- California Penal Code 19, endnote 3.
- Penal Code 1203 PC.
- Penal Code 1203.3, endnote 5.
- Penal Code 1203(b)(2)(D).
- Penal Code 1203(b)(1)
- Penal Code 1203(e).
- Penal Code 647(j)(1).
- Penal Code 647(j)(2).
- See endnote 1.
- See same. See also Penal Code 19, endnote 3.
- Penal Code 647(l)(1).
- Penal Code 647(l)(2).
- Penal Code 647(l)(1) and (2).
- 18 U.S. Code 1801(a).