Indecent-exposure conviction required physical presence, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on February 6th, 2018

The Iowa Legislature did not make clear that the crime of indecent exposure could be committed by sending a text message, the Iowa Supreme Court said in a Feb. 2 decision.

The Court overturned the indecent-exposure conviction of Jose Lopez in Buchanan County District Court for sending a text message containing an image of his genitals to a woman he had been romantically pursuing against her wishes.

The question before the Court:  Does Iowa’s indecent-exposure statute make it illegal to send an electronic image of one’s genitals to a person who does not welcome the message, or must the person doing the exposing be in the physical presence of the victim?

The Court, in the unanimous decision written by Justice Daryl Hecht, said a physical presence is required.

The decision turned on the meaning of “exposes,” and the Court concluded that the term, for purposes of interpreting the statute, does not mean an image sent by electronic means, such as a cell phone text.

Since the statute does not define the term “exposes,” the Court turned to the dictionary, which defines the word as “to lay open to view,” “lay bare,” “make known,” “set forth.”

“However, nothing in the dictionary definition or our prior caselaw explicitly addresses whether causing one’s genitals to be visible or open to view is limited to only in-person scenarios or if it can be done through electronic communication,” Hecht wrote.

The State argued that “one exposes one’s genitals by transmitting an image of them via text message because the image is made visible for a recipient,” while Lopez argued that transmitting an image of one’s genitals to another person does not equate to exposure.

The Court, finding both views plausible, concluded the statute is ambiguous and turned to the process of statutory interpretation.

In a 1983 decision, State v. Bauer, the Court said the Legislature’s purpose in drafting the indecent-exposure statute was to render indecent exposure “essentially a visual assault crime.”

Thus, Hecht wrote, “Because the offense of indecent exposure constitutes a crime of visual assault, we conclude the meaning of the word exposes in [the indecent-exposure statute] must be understood as having features of temporal and physical proximity.”

The Court, however said in a footnote that its decision is “narrow and limited to the electronic transmission of a still image of the sender’s genitals or pubes. Our conclusion in this case does not address a situation in which the sender’s genitals or pubes are viewed via a real-time electronic transmission, such as through Skype, FaceTime, or similar technology.”

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