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What are crimes against nature?

UPDATED: May 24, 2012

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Crimes against nature involve sexual acts that do not involve the traditional sexual act of a man and woman having penile to vaginal sexual intercourse. Essentially, anything outside of this definition could result in a charge for a crime against nature. Read on to learn more about how this offense is currently charged, modern defenses, and the possible punishment ranges.

Crimes Against Nature

A few states still have statutes that are titled crimes against nature, including Louisiana, North Carolina, and Kansas. Crimes against nature are usually broadly defined, which tends to lead to constitutionality challenges. For example, Louisiana defines crimes against nature as “the unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex or opposite sex or with an animal.” Any activity that does not conform to the traditional notion of vaginal intercourse technically constitutes a crime against nature. 

Historically, what was viewed as unnatural sexual activity was prosecuted. This included male to male sexual contact, female to female sexual contact, or human to animal sexual contact. Although the title of the offense implies that nature must somehow be involved, crimes against nature offenses are not limited to sexual contact with animals. Because these statutes were so broad, states either had to limit their application in practice or by passing new statutes.

Some states have chosen to retain (with some minor tweaking) their crimes against nature statutes. Instead of abolishing or renaming the offense, states have chosen to tailor the application of their crimes against nature offenses so as to avoid a constitutional challenge. For example, these states will not prosecute consensual activity between adults that is not otherwise prohibited (like prostitution). Instead, these states limit their application to events of public interest or certain classes of victims.

Crimes Against Nature Involving Minors and Protected Groups

Even though Supreme Court cases have held that adults may consent to any sexual contact, the same rule has not been extended to minors or mentally challenged adults. When a defendant is charged with a sexual assault charge, he may also be charged with a companion charge for a crime against nature when the sexual act involves a specially protected group.

Some states have simply rewritten or relabeled their crimes against nature statutes. For example, crimes that involve sexual contact with a child are now found in indecency with a child or incest statutes. Crimes that involve public acts of crimes against nature are now codified in public lewdness statutes. Offers to perform crimes against nature are prohibited through prostitution crimes. Even though declared unconstitutional in 2003, some states, like Texas, still have statutes which prohibit homosexual conduct.

Defensive Theories for Crimes Against Nature Charges

Because of the broad definition of crimes against nature, the first major defense to a crime against nature allegation is to challenge its constitutionality. Much of the groundwork has been laid to encourage law enforcement to handle these charges in such a way as to avoid a violation of a defendant's right to privacy. However, not all agencies are quite on board, and some still push the limit. If a crime against nature charge, as applied, overreaches into a person’s privacy interest, then he could either challenge the statute directly, or challenge the statute as it is applied.

If a defendant is charged with a valid crime against nature charge, then the next defensive theory would be to invoke any defenses listed by case law or state statutes. Consent between adults, for example, will be a valid defense as long as the sexual acts were committed in private. However, what is considered private has been challenged. For example, a car without tinted windows in the middle of the day does not afford a great deal of privacy. Conversely, a car with deeply tinted windows at night could qualify as a private place, and can invoke a private consensual activity defense.

Some defendants ask for jury nullification. Instead of fighting the charge, a defendant admits the act occurred, but asks the jury to find him not guilty because societal attitudes have changed regarding certain acts. Even though a fairly straight forward defense, a nullification defense can be extremely tricky, especially with conservative jurors.

Possible Consequences of a Crimes Against Nature Conviction

The states which still have formal crimes against nature statutes punish these offenses as felony offenses with punishment ranges up to five years in prison or hard labor. A fine can also be imposed of up to $2,000. If a state has rewritten and relabeled certain crimes against nature, then a defendant could face a punishment range of two to twenty years if found guilty of felony-grade crimes against nature. Public lewdness crimes against nature are charged and punished as misdemeanors which are punishable by up to a year in jail.

A number of defendants want probated sentences for their crimes against nature allegations. However, sexually related offenses, including crimes against nature, often result in some of the most intensive forms of supervision including sex offender conditions and extra reporting assignments.

Not all crimes against nature will qualify, but some offenses will also require a defendant to register as a sex offender. This is a huge collateral consequence that can limit educational and employment opportunities.

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