GOT A HANKERING to let it all hang out next Mardi Gras? Better think twice—those three seconds in the spotlight could cost you up to $1,000.
Despite its image as one of the nation's most liberal cities, Seattle's policy toward fleshy displays is more puritanical than permissive. This Fat Tuesday, cops rounded up around half a dozen women for baring their breasts and slapped them with misdemeanor charges, which carry a jail sentence of up to 90 days and a fine of up to $1,000.
What's all the fuss about? State law prohibits "open and obscene exposure of [one's] person . . . knowing that such conduct is likely to cause reasonable affront or alarm." But judging by this year's Mardi Gras arrest reports, Seattle cops were the only ones feeling alarmed. An example: "A group of males were gathering around the suspect, cheering and asking her to expose again." Seattle cops would no doubt be shocked, simply shocked, if they traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, where hundreds of women do the annual boobs-for-beads trade-off unmolested by legions of street police.
Thanks to a 1990 court ruling that found the city's indecent-exposure statute "overly broad," Seattle lacks its own indecent-exposure ordinance. Instead, the city uses the state's statute (also vague, but upheld in court) to prosecute everything from bare boobs at Mardi Gras to cruisers having sex in Volunteer Park.
Most female flashing cases never go to trial. Instead, women generally pay the city a fee of $125 for what's called a "pretrial diversion," which means that if they stay out of trouble for 90 days, the offense gets scrubbed from their record. The fees are a minor moneymaker for the city, which makes around 100 indecent-exposure arrests a year. And they have another benefit: They keep boob-baring cases out of Superior Court, where a constitutional challenge could create problems for the vaguely worded statute. "I think in other states there has been a fair amount of concern" about breast exposure laws, Seattle Assistant City Attorney Richard Greene says—"but not in Washington."
Erica C. Barnett