What are crimes against nature?

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. 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. Crimes against nature are usually broadly defined, which tends to lead to constitutional challenges.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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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 a crime against nature offense is currently charged, modern defenses, and the possible punishment ranges.

What are 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 sexual offense crimes, which tend to lead to constitutional 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 and is subject to penalties.

Historically, what was viewed as unnatural sexual conduct was prosecuted. This included male to male sexual contact, female to female sexual contact, sexual contact with an object, or human to animal sexual contact. This type of charge could lead to sex offender registration and/or substantial time in prison. In essence, gay people could be treated in the same way as those involved in the trafficking of children under Louisiana law.

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 to preserve the constitutional rights of people.

Some states have chosen to retain (with some minor tweaking) their crimes against nature statutes. Instead of repealing, abolishing, or renaming the offense, states have chosen to tailor the language, terms, and application of their crimes against nature offenses so as to avoid a constitutional challenge of eligible items.

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 and circumstances of public interest or certain classes of victims. So a victim of trafficking would be regarded differently than a consenting adult partner in a homosexual relationship. They would also be treated differently than adults involved in the crimes of incest.

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What Are 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 class of people.

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 with protections for children. 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.

In states like Louisiana, there are no protections against statutory rape charges, otherwise known as a “Romeo and Juliet clause) for minors or those close in age with minors. So a 13-year-old could theoretically face statutory rape charges for having intercourse with another 13-year-old. Obviously, the laws around sexual acts are complicated in many states.

What are 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 an affirmative defense that involves challenging its constitutionality. In short, the defendant did it, but prosecuting them violates their constitutional rights. 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 the offenders 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 affirmative 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 with a traditional defense to prosecution, a defendant admits the violation occurred, but asks the jury to find him not guilty because societal attitudes have changed regarding certain acts. Even though a fairly straightforward defense, a nullification defense can be extremely tricky, especially with conservative jurors.

What are some possible consequences of a conviction for crime against nature?

The states which still have formal crimes against nature statutes punish these offenses as felony offenses with punishment ranges up to five years prison time or hard labor. After convictions, a fine can also be imposed of up to $2,000 per violation. If a state has rewritten and relabeled certain elements of 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 convictions are 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 registry 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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