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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Madison cops seek new law for deviants
Proposed city ordinance targets public masturbation, nudity, peeping
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Bramlett persuaded the City Attorney's Office to draft a new law.
Bramlett persuaded the City Attorney's Office to draft a new law.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Amy Bramlett says it's surprisingly common. Police gets calls about, or happen upon, people who are -- there's no graceful way to put this -- whacking off in public.

"A lot of our resources are going into that," says Bramlett, a Madison police officer with the department's Criminal Intelligence Section. "There are a large number of people who are committing these deviant acts."

The problem is that the state criminal charge of lewd and lascivious behavior includes an "element of exposure." And in cases where it isn't possible to prove that Mr. Happy put in an appearance, even if the person was clearly engaged in sexual gratification, the charge is generally bumped down to disorderly conduct.

Police say disorderly conduct is too broad a category to help them track who's been caught using the self-service pump in public. These are often habitual offenders, who commonly also engage in more serious behaviors like stalking or child enticement.

But without a specific charge for low-level sex crimes, says Madison Police Capt. Cam McLay, it's difficult to quantify the problem or focus on repeat offenders: "We have to burrow deep into every disorderly conduct arrest" to see what it's about.

Officer Bramlett conducted a review of cases reported by dispatch as involving lewd and lascivious behavior, whether or not they were charged as such. One illustrative case was from October 2008.

Two young women (including a 15-year-old) called police to report a man following them on South Randall Avenue, masturbating. He had his hand in his pants but the witness couldn't say whether his penis was ever exposed, although he was "definitely pleasuring himself." The man denied doing anything illegal, telling police "I didn't ejaculate and nobody saw me."

The man was arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior but convicted of disorderly conduct. Bramlett found he'd had several prior run-ins with the law, including another lewd and lascivious arrest charged as disorderly conduct.

Bramlett took her findings to the City Attorney's Office, which agreed there was a need to craft a new law.

The result: a "public indecency ordinance" (PDF) introduced Tuesday to the Madison Common Council. The ordinance would create a forfeiture of $500 for a first offense and up to $3,000 for subsequent offenses for anyone who engages in public masturbation, or "commits an indecent act of sexual gratification with another," or "publicly and indecently exposes genitals or pubic area," "appears publicly in a state of nudity," or is seen peeping into places like restrooms, showers and dressing rooms.

Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy says "the primary issue is masturbators," for whom there is now often not an appropriate charge. But the new ordinance would give Madison police an alternative to disorderly conduct charges for a range of behaviors. Last November, a Madison Municipal judge dismissed a disorderly conduct citation against a participant in last June's World Naked Bike Ride, noting there was no city or state laws "specifically prohibiting public nudity." (The city is continuing to prosecute other participants.)

Zilavy says the new ordinance "wasn't drafted in response to that" and certainly wouldn't be on the books before this year's World Naked Bike Ride, set for June 18. And McLay remarks that nudity alone, absent a context of sexual gratification, might still be more appropriately charged as disorderly conduct.

The city's forfeiture is less serious than a criminal charge but, says Bramlett, "if officers can meet the standards of lewd and lascivious, they should absolutely make that charge."

A fiscal note attached to the ordinance predicts that, if passed, "there will likely be an increase in General Fund revenues derived from fines ranging from an estimated $20,000 to $50,000."

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