Could Louis C.K. Face Jail Time?

Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images.
Yesterday, the New York Times released an exposé detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against Louis C.K. Five different women have described how C.K. masturbated in front of them without their consent. C.K. released a statement today, confirming, "These stories are true."
The reaction around the industry, even before C.K.'s statement, has been swift, with comedians condemning his behavior, HBO and FX removing C.K.'s movies and specials from their platforms, and the distributor of C.K.'s new movie canceling its release. But the question remains: Is it against the law to masturbate in front of people without their consent? Could C.K. face jail time?
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In California, where three women have described instances of C.K. non-consensually masturbating either in front of them or while on the phone with them, this behavior might be deemed criminal under California Penal Code 314. Under this code, anyone who exposes themselves "in any public place, or in any place where there are present other persons to be offended or annoyed" could be found guilty of a misdemeanor. If they're charged more than once, it's considered a felony, according to a California criminal defense lawyer who asked to remain anonymous. "If convicted, [C.K.] would also have to register as a sex offender for 10 years," she said. All the women would have to do is file a police report, and the state could pursue charges from there.
This is true no matter who is masturbating in front of someone — be it a boss, a famous actor, or a random person on the subway. But there's one major roadblock. In California, the statute of limitations for this kind of misdemeanor is one year. For a felony, it's three. The women who spoke to the Times fall well outside of these statutes, which means they can't pursue criminal charges. (Specific laws and statutes of limitations vary from state to state, though, so the women who described instances of sexual misconduct in Colorado, for example, can refer to Colorado Criminal Code 18-7-302. However, the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor is five years in Colorado.)
If criminal charges can't be filed, these women can pursue civil charges against C.K. Civil cases can result in plaintiffs receiving monetary compensation or restraining orders, or the defendant could be ordered to seek counseling. (These are just a few examples of legal remedies, and they're by no means an exhaustive list.)
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In the case of Rebecca Corry, who described instances of sexual misconduct while working on a pilot with C.K. in 2005, she can file a civil suit against the company that employed her during that time. "If the company knew about or should have known about the conduct and failed to prevent or correct it, then they may be on the hook for this," says Genie Harrison of Genie Harrison Law Firm. There's a chance that C.K.'s manager Dave Becky could also be liable in civil court, Harrison says. According to two of the women's accounts, Becky knew of C.K.'s behavior, and instead of attempting to stop it, he pressured the women to stay silent.
So even though none of these women can pursue criminal charges, there might be a way for them to seek legal justice in civil court. And while that likely won't heal any emotional wounds, it's definitely a start. As C.K. said in his statement, "I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with."
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