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Is there a crime of "prowling" in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Aug 20, 2019 | 0 Comments

woman peeking

“Prowling” is a crime in California per California Penal Code 647i PC, the State's “peeking while loitering law.” A person commits this offense when he:

  1. peeks into an inhabited building, and
  2. does so while loitering on private property.

PC 647i is technically known as California's law against "peeking while loitering" or "unlawful peeking." A violation of this code section is charged as a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.

Alternatively, the judge might sentence the offender to summary (or informal) probation. Luckily, a person can raise a legal defense to challenge prowling accusations. Some common defenses include that the defendant:

  1. was not on private property,
  2. had a lawful purpose for being on the property, and/or
  3. was not “loitering.”

Please note that prowling is a separate and different crime than that of “invasion of privacy,” under Penal Code 647j PC. What is the California crime of prowling, per Penal Code 647i? Under PC 647i, a prosecutor must prove three things to successfully convict a defendant of the offense of prowling. These are that the accused:

  1. delayed, lingered, prowled, or wandered on someone else's private property,
  2. did so without a lawful purpose for being there, and
  3. while there peeked in the door or window of an inhabited building or structure on the property.

Note that 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. Also note that Penal Code 647i 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. The defendant can be convicted of PC 647i even if he did not enter the property with the intention to loiter or peek. Some examples of prowling include:

  • Art sneaks into his neighbor's backyard at night in order to look into the couple's bedroom and watch the husband and wife have sex.
  • Nia believes her boyfriend is cheating on her with Sofia, so she goes to Sofia's home and peers into every window to see if her boyfriend is there.
  • Marcos has a crush on his college professor and sneaks into her yard and tries to see her through the bathroom window.

What are the penalties for violating PC 647i?

A violation of this code section is charged as a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.

Alternatively, the judge might sentence the offender to summary (or 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, 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. Please note that a conviction of "prowling" does not require California sex offender registration.

Are there legal defenses available if accused of this crime?

Luckily, a person accused of unlawful peeking can challenge the accusation by raising a legal defense. A successful defense can reduce or even dismiss a charge. Four common legal defenses to accusation of violating PC 647i include that the defendant:

  1. was not on private property,
  2. did not look into a door or window,
  3. had a lawful purpose for being on the property, and/or
  4. was not “loitering.”

Under California law, “to loiter” means to linger or hang around in a public place or business where one has no particular or legal purpose.

Is prowling the same offense as “invasion of privacy?”

While invasion of privacy is a crime in California, it is not the same offense as prowling. Penal Code 647j is the California statute on criminal invasion of privacy. This section makes it an offense for a person to either:

  1. look through a hole in a bathroom, dressing room or similar area with the intent to invade someone's privacy, or
  2. use a camera to look at someone's body under or through clothing (a so-called "upskirt" violation).

Invasion of privacy under Penal Code 647j is charged as a misdemeanor in California. Potential punishment can include:

  • up to six months in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.

However, note that punishment increases if:

  • it is the defendant's second or subsequent offense under PC 647j, or
  • the victim was a minor at the time of the offense.

In either of these cases, the penalty for invasion of privacy can include:

  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $2,000.

Note that California also has civil causes of action for certain forms of invasion of privacy. A victim can sue for “public disclosure of private facts” when someone publicly makes known private and embarrassing information about the victim. One can also make a "false light" claim when a person or business disseminates false and embarrassing assertions about the subject.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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