A former reality television performer is suing four police officers for participating in what she claims was an unfair arrest for baring her breasts.
It turns out the law is not so clear when it comes go going topless in Los Angeles. Raven Nicole Williams, a.k.a. Raven Masterson of VH1's Rock of Love and Rock of Love: Charm School, insists that baring her breasts is practically a Constitutional right. And she has made it a habit of strolling sans top on the sidewalk outside her Miracle Mile home.
She says she has the right to exercise what she believes is a right not only to free expression, but to equal treatment under the law:
"I feel like a woman has every right to be topless like a man does," she says.
Since March she has had four encounters with police, including one arrest for suspicion of indecent exposure, all of which she has videotaped. The March 25 arrest, she said, "was a direct civil rights violation."
Williams says the City Attorney's office filed a charge of indecent exposure against her but that the case was dismissed by the judge.
The four episodes triggered her federal civil lawsuit, which was just amended this week. It seeks to establish a pattern of sexism and bias on the part of the cops named in the suit.
After her arrest, she was questioned by cops three times for going topless on sidewalks near her Hauser Boulevard home. Williams says she was "detained" by cops but the let go because "they agreed they had no grounds to arrest."
But in one of the incidents, in June, she says she was forced to put on a top or face jail.
She originally sued police supervisors, the Los Angeles Police Department itself, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, and a deputy City Attorney, but a judge made her amend the suit to delete those defendants. The claim now names only four officers.
Williams says the law allows her to go outside with pasties, and that she wears flesh-colored ones. She says the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment protects her so long as men can go shirtless:
I see men walking around topless, why can't a woman? It gets hot out here. Why should I have to wear a shirt? Why should a woman's body be sexualized? There's nothing inherently sexual about a woman's body.
Two attorneys told us that the state penal code does not criminalize going topless for women, but that some local statutes make it a misdemeanor.
We reached out to the L.A. City Attorney's office for clarification but never heard back on the topic. We found L.A. municipal code language the forbids nudity "below the upper edge of the areola" at parks, playgrounds, beaches, and adjacent "waters."
Williams, who says she is a sex worker who has performed in adult videos, has researched the law extensively and rifles off penal and municipal code reference numbers with ease. "The only way you can get convicted is if you engage in something lewd," she says.
Stephen R. Brodsky, a San Diego attorney who has handled indecent exposure cases, explains that "going topless isn't per se indecent, without having intent to to arouse." However, he said, if a woman's exposure was riling up people, police could have a case of disturbing the peace on their hands.
Santa Monica attorney Roger Jon Diamond, known for his work defending strip clubs against city crackdowns and legislation, says "most cities make [going topless for women] a misdemeanor."
"Pasties," he said, "might immunize you from criminal liability."
But for the most part, Diamond notes, "I don't think the police would waste their time" on enforcement. Indeed, a police spokesman seemed to agree:
We have a naked bike ride every year and we are told that we cannot arrest people for a public nudity. ... I believe as we stand now that someone being topless in public is not considered criminal in nature, and if we're called about it we would try to resolve it peacefully without a cite or arrest.
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See also: World Naked Bike Ride L.A. (NSFW)
So why was Williams arrested on suspicion of indecent exposure on March 25? It's not clear. Cops said a neighbor complained about her state of dress. She spent two nights in jail.
"I took to wearing flesh-colored pasties again," she says. "You can't intimidate me."