Jason Stern, one of New York’s top criminal defense attorneys, has been featured in the NY Times, Good Morning America, CNN and Fox News.
Do You Need a Lawyer?
Nearly every town, village, city and state has some type of law prohibiting public urination. And if you're one of the hundred thousand or so people each year who have been caught in the act, then you probably need some level of guidance on how to best handle your public urination situation.
The first and most important thing to consider is what type of crime or violation you have been charged with. Is it a crime in your jurisdiction? Is it a violation? Is it a misdemeanor? All summonses and tickets need to be attended to, but in particular, a misdemeanor conviction can have a devastating effect on one's future, including, but not limited to: Being denied student loan aid, having difficulty obtaining employment, criminal record background screenings, and for non-residents, being denied legal entry to the United States.
If public urination in your jurisdiction is treated as a misdemeanor, then I would highly encourage you to hire a lawyer or attorney. Simply put, the present cost of hiring professional legal counsel is far outweighed by the future cost of a misdemeanor conviction.
If, however, your jurisdiction treats public urination as a violation or non-criminal offense, then your decision to hire a lawyer depends on several other factors:
- What is the penalty for pleading guilty or admitting to the offense? In some jurisdictions (such as New York City), the fine can be as little as $50; however, in others, we have heard of penalties as high as $1,000.00! Try to find out how much the penalties are in your jurisdiction and weigh the cost of hiring a lawyer or attorney against the cost of the penalty.
- What is the local policy and procedure for handling the public urination summons? Can it be mailed in together with a check or do you need to appear in court? For those who have never been inside a courthouse (in particular, a criminal courthouse), appearing in court may be extremely nerve-racking and stressful for many individuals. Generally, one must stand up in front of a room full of strangers and walk to the front of the courtroom and stand before the judge by him or herself and answer questions out loud from the judge. If you are a naturally nervous, shy or private person, this could be a terribly embarrassing and humiliating experience and hiring a lawyer or attorney for a few hundred dollars could be money well spent.
- How important is your time? Every person places a different value on his or her time. Doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals may consider spending several hours waiting on security lines and in a crowded courtroom to be an incredible waste of their valuable time and would probably prefer to pay an attorney or lawyer to handle their public urination ticket or summons without requiring their presence. For an employee who cannot miss work, hiring a lawyer to appear in court for him or her would also appear to be the best option. However, an unemployed person or one with a flexible work schedule might choose to personally appear in court. But keep in mind that some courts may require multiple appearances—particularly in cases where you are contesting the public urination ticket or summons.
- How much does it cost to hire a lawyer in your jurisdiction? In some smaller towns, a lawyer may charge as little as a few hundred dollars to appear in court for you. In larger cities, some criminal defense attorneys may charge as much as a few thousand dollars to handle even the smallest criminal charge. When choosing a lawyer, try to find a balance between the lawyer's fee and his or her other benefits, such as the level of personal attention he or she provides, the timeliness of getting a return call, the experience level and the professionalism with which he or she conducts him or herself.
How to Fight Your Public Urination Case
If public urination is a crime or treated as a crime in your jurisdiction, then you are entitled to the same protections afforded in the United States (or your state) Constitution, including the presumption of innocence requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
In public urination cases, I have found that in most instances, police issue summonses and tickets to (or even arrest) anyone even suspected of urinating in public, without regard to issues of proof. For example, if someone is in an alley with the intent of urinating and is unzipping or unbuttoning his or her pants, the police will often issue a summons regardless of whether or not the person actually urinated.
What's important to note is that so far as I am aware, no state or jurisdiction contains any laws that prohibit 'attempted public urination' or 'intent to publicly urinate;' therefore, any summons, arrest or ticket directed towards someone who has not actually excreted any urine is improper and unlawful.
Furthermore, often times a person who chooses to urinate in public has their back turned to the arresting or issuing officer, impeding the officer's view and causing further problems with proof. Say, for example, that a person merely turns his back and faces a wall to adjust a stuck zipper or to make some other 'adjustment' that requires a level of modesty. An observant police officer might assume that the 'adjuster' is urinating and improperly issue a summons.
Very rare is the occasion in which the police officer physically and clearly observes the defendant actually urinating. Therefore, proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt becomes a far more complicated issue.
Don't Apologize or Admit Guild
Many police officers will attempt to buttress a public urination charge by asking the defendant one or more questions designed to acquire an admission, such as 'What were you doing?,' which often results in an apology. An apology often has the legal effect of acting as an admission of guilt, thereby making the job of proving guilt far easier.
In other cases, an officer might observe a defendant facing a wall and in approaching the defendant, may make visual, aural and/or nasal observations (PO noted a yellow liquid pooling one foot from defendant which this PO concluded was urine based on the odor). In making these observations, the officer is making a record of his observations to help prove guilt in a court of law.
In any event, keep in mind that in nearly all cases, the police will not be scraping urine samples off the street (as seen in CSI), so proving that the urine on the ground contains your genetic DNA markers will usually not be a part of the proof introduced at any trial!
For the most part, the criminal case against a public urination defendant will consist of the police officer's written observations (sight, smell, etc.) and any statements made by the defendant.
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Therefore, the most important part of fighting your public urination case (or any criminal case for that matter) is to not make any comments to the police at the time of arrest or issuance of the summons or ticket. The only thing you are required to do is provide some form of identification upon request. If you are asked what you were doing, you are under no legal obligation to either answer or even tell the truth.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Jason Stern (author) from New York on November 01, 2013:
JNY, unfortunately one cannot both pay the fine AND get a dismissal because the court cannot legally impose a penalty for a dismissal.
I typically recommend that a defendant have the summons reviewed by a lawyer who can weigh the merits of fighting the case and provide you with a summary of your options and likelihood of success.
Please feel free to contact me for a free review of your summons and telephone consultation.
JNY on November 01, 2013:
If a person is cited for public urination under the NYC parks regulation, should they just pay the fine of $50? Can this person ask to just pay the fine and have the case dismissed?
Jason Stern (author) from New York on August 29, 2013:
Unfortunately, this seems to be true in New York City. Simply standing in an alleyway facing a building can lead to a misinterpretation of your behavior and a summons for public urination. The problem is that even without witnessing the activity, the NYPD officer will routinely claim to have personally witnessed the urination and will testify to the same in Court. Sadly, the judge will openly ask, 'Why would the police officer lie about this?'
Jason Stern (author) from New York on August 29, 2013:
A young child does not possess the mens rea (guilty intent) to be guilty of a crime. I have, however, seen 16 and 17 year olds charged with public urination in New York City.
ScottinTexas on July 29, 2013:
The problem is that whether the Officer saw you or not, they will LIE about it in Court and juries (and esp. Judges) TEND to believe the Officer, and they know this. With so little integrity anymore in any position of authority, you must be careful of what you are doing (and with whom) at all times or take the risk if you get crossways with a Police Officer.
LauraGT from MA on June 15, 2012:
Wow, who knew? I've often wondered about this. What about children urinating in public? I don't think there is a mom alive who hasn't let their child pee near a tree at a playground! Is that illegal?!!?