Public urination considered sex offense in Georgia, not enforced by policePosted: March 6, 2012
By Polina Marinova
It’s 1 a.m. downtown. The bars are crowded and the lines to the bathroom are just too long. But he can’t hold it, and no one can see him behind that tree — except his 17-year-old girlfriend.
Until now, he was a first-year college student with hopes to go to med school. Though this situation is hypothetical, the student would be considered a registered sex offender for the rest of his life under Georgia law.
Georgia is one of 13 states that require sex offender registration for those charged with urinating in public. It is considered a sex offense if the act is committed in view of a minor.
So technically, all four University of Georgia students charged with public urination in the last two months could land on the Georgia’s sex offender registry if they were with friends who were under 18 years old.
Their names would appear right beside other offenders charged with crimes such as rape, sexual battery and child molestation. If labeled as a sex offender, the individual’s picture would be featured on the county sheriff’s department sexual offender registry and his residence would be marked on a map showing where he lives.
But those students’ mugshots will never make it to the state’s sex offender registry — at least not in Athens-Clarke County.
Federal law does not limit states’ authority to increase the number of offenses that require sex offender registration.
Researchers found that many states require individuals to register as sex offenders even though their conduct did not involve sexual coercion or violence. The researchers who are part of Human Rights Watch — an independent organization dedicated to defending human rights — compiled a report in 2007 examining US sex offender laws.
The public indecency provisions in the official Georgia Code state that a person commits a public indecency offense if there is a public act of “lewd exposure of the sexual organs” or “lewd appearance in a state of partial or complete nudity.”
But local law enforcement does not consider public urination to fit into those categories.
“Just because they word it in such a way doesn’t mean we’re doing it,” said Jimmy Williamson, University of Georgia chief of police. “Truly, I guess you could charge somebody with public indecency if they were to urinate, but most times we go with the public urination charge. It has to be more than just going to the restroom.”
The ACC police force does not classify public urination as a sex offense either, said Hilda Sorrow, ACC public information officer.
“Yes, it’s public indecency, but urinating in public is not a sex offense,” she said. “It becomes a sex offense if you start doing other things than just urinating.”
But where is the line drawn between exposing sex organs while urinating and exposing sex organs while doing those “other things?”
Williamson said public indecency differs from public urination because the indecency charge is typically for “someone who would be exposing themselves or touching themselves in a sexual way.”
He gave an example of an individual who goes to a park or stands outside of children’s day cares and masturbates.
“That’s typically what indecent exposure is for,” Williamson said. “So indecent exposure would be seen as a sex offense. Those actions that we see would be more of a sexual offender. You going over and urinating in the bushes — whether male or female — even though you’re exposing sexual organs, I don’t see that as an indecent exposure charge.”
But Williamson’s next example of public indecency makes his definition of public indecency even hazier.
“We have flashers in society — we haven’t seen many lately, but we could see them again,” he said.
Flashers — like public urinaters — are exposing their sexual organs in public but are also likely not touching themselves in a sexual manner either. Flashers, however, could be charged with public indecency and have to register as sex offenders, whereas urinaters would not.
This kind of ambiguity creates a fine line between what the law states is a sex offense versus what law enforcement officials consider a sex offense.
“Even though the law might allow for that to be charged, you wouldn’t typically see the police charge someone with public indecency if someone’s truly urinating,” Williamson said. “The way I view it, I wouldn’t call it a sex offense, and I don’t think anyone would send it in as a sex offense.”
Just because Williamson doesn’t see public urination as a public indecency charge doesn’t change the fact that it’s still on the books as a sex offense so long as the urination is done in the view of a minor.
In many cases, students who are caught urinating, are not even charged with public urination — which is an arrestable offense. Instead, they are typically charged with public intoxication or underage possession or consumption of alcohol, according to University of Georgia police reports.
“You normally don’t do those things when you’re sober,” Williamson said. “People only do those things when they’ve been drinking. It’s not uncommon to charge people with a number of charges to deal with the instance at hand. The public urination is usually what draws the police department’s attention.”
The incidents occur at 1 or 2 a.m., and 99 percent of the time, the public urinater is male, according to Williamson’s observations in his 25 years of experience in law enforcement.
But he’s never heard of a student landing on a sex offender registry as a result of urinating in public.
“Even if somebody’s charged with public indecency as a result of that type of action, I just don’t think our solicitor would allow it to rise to that level and be sent in as a sex offender if they’re just urinating,” Williamson said.
The police make the charges, and the solicitor’s office handles the final deposition. But the gray area between public urination and public indecency highlights the discrepancy between state regulations and local law enforcement.
“I don’t think the solicitor’s office would allow it to get to that level,” Williamson said. “I don’t think anybody meant for public urination to end up on there.”