Stephanie's Law

Way Too Severe

Stephanie Fuller is a resident of Bay Shore, Long Island, who was surreptiously videotaped by her landlord, one William Schultz. Without Stephanie's consent or knowledge, Schultz put a small video camera in the smoke-detector that faced her bed. A line led from the camera into Schultz's own apartment, from which he both viewed and recorded the images. His crime was exposed when Stephanie's boyfriend noticed suspicious wires coming out of the smoke-detector. The couple called the police, and Schultz was arrested.

Because New York State's "Peeping Tom" laws only cover the use of a camera or other device to "peer" through a window, Schultz was charged with trespassing and not with "video voyeurism." In other words, had he been convicted of entering Stephanie's apartment and placing a wad of gum (rather than a video camera) on the smoke-detector, his punishment would have been the same: a $1,500 fine, probation for one to three years, and 280 hours of community service.

The "sting" or deterrent effect of such a punishment depends on your socio-economic status: if you are well-off (if Schultz made a good deal of money by selling tapes of Stephanie getting undressed or having sex), this punishment is light; $1,500 is pocket change. If you don't have to work two jobs or more than 40 hours a week at one job to make ends meet, 280 hours of community service is easy to perform. But if you are poor or unemployed, the punishment is heavy. Fifteen hundred dollars is a fuck of a lot of money to a poor person (as much as a month's wages). And if you can only afford to spend two hours day on community service, that means it will take you 140 consecutive days to work your sentence off.

Stephanie Fuller believed that Schultz got off easy. According to press reports, she believed that he'd made more tape recordings than were found in his apartment, and she was worried that these tapes would eventually find their way to the Internet. And so she started to campaign for the passage of a more stringent law, one that specifically prohibited the type of behavior that Schultz had engaged in. She made contact with her elected representatives at both the local and state levels, and spoke out in the press. Eventually her campaign by seconded by other women who had been similarly victimized and by the famous father-of-a-crime-victim-turned-TV-vigilante, John Walsh. The New York Post also rallied to her side.

Signed into law on 23 June 2003, "Stephanie's Law" prohibits "unlawful surveillance," which is defined as (1) the installation of "an imagining device" with no legitimate purpose other than surreptiously viewing or recording another person in a bedroom, bathroom, changing room, or other specified room; (2) for the purposes of sexual arousal or gratification, the use or installation of an imagining device that surreptiously views a person dressing or undressing when that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy; (3) the use or installation of an imagining device to surreptiously view under the clothing of a person (commonly known as "upskirting"); or (4) for amusement, entertainment or profit, or to abuse or degrade the victim, the use or installation of an imaging device to surreptiously record another person dressing or undressing when that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. A person who is found guilty of these crimes, which are rated as class D felonies, can be sentenced to a jail term of between 2 and 7 years, and, if so sentenced, must register with the State's Sex Offender Registry after release.

You can tell that something is wrong with this law because all the politicians (Democrat and Republican alike) lined up to extol it. According to a press release from Governor George Pataki's office, the following remarks were made at the signing ceremony, at which Stephanie herself was present.

"Stephanie's Law" will protect against voyeurs who destroy personal privacy and dignity by secretly videotaping or photographing unsuspecting individuals," Governor Pataki said. "Video voyeurs who prey on unknowing victims will no longer be able to escape with little more than a slap on the wrist -- they will now receive punishment they deserve because of this new law."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, "Acts of video voyeurism are not only an invasion of a person's privacy, but are also a threat to the liberties of a free society. These criminal activities undermine the most basic levels of privacy to which every citizen is entitled. This new law, with its strong felony charges and prison sentences, will no longer allow these crimes to fall through the cracks of our legal system. Law enforcement will now have the ability to swiftly provide justice to those found guilty of these heinous acts."

Senator Carl Marcellino said, "The signing of this bill into law is a landmark decision for New York State. The bottom line is there are perverted individuals out there that see surreptitious video surveillance as a form of high-tech hunting and under a current gap in the law, video peeping toms cannot be adequately punished. This legislation protects the privacy of unknowing victims caught on tape, provides law enforcement with the necessary tools to convict these disturbed criminals and enhances public safety by requiring these felons to register as sex offenders."

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger said, "This is crucial legislation to protect individuals from violations of the privacy they have every right to expect. Hopefully, the tough new criminal sanctions will serve not only to punish offenders but also to deter anyone contemplating these crimes."

Assemblyman James Conte said, "My constituent, Stephanie Fuller, was a victim without a crime. She made it clear that she was not going to rest until the injustice she had suffered was against the law. This law bears her name as a testament to that tenacity. Thanks to Stephanie's hard work and Governor Pataki's support, future victims will not have to endure the same ordeal."

All that "Stephanie's Law" needed to do was increase the penalties for a certain type of trespassing (trepassing with intent to install a hidden video camera for the purposes of sexual arousal or gratification). But these get-tough-on-crime politicians went way too far, especially when it comes to "upskirting." Send someone to jail for years because he or she took a picture of someone's panties?! Ridiculous. What if the up-the-skirt picture doesn't show the woman's face? Send the photographer to jail anyway? But won't a long jail-term turn these "perverted individuals" into hardened criminals? Shouldn't "video voyeurs" be "sentenced" to therapy or counseling instead? After all, "upskirting" -- though reprehensible -- is not a physical assault.

By going way too far, New York State's politicians have inadvertantly given encouragement and an important legal precedent to those who would like to ban the use of surveillance cameras in public places. Almost without exception, up-the-skirt shots are taken outdoors, in public places. Stephanie's Law says that people should not be photographed when they have a "reasonable expectation of privacy." Does this not suggest that women have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public places, and not just in their bedrooms? Yes, it most certainly does. In the words of Pataki's press release:

To ensure that these criminal penalties do not apply to individuals and businesses that seek to lawfully protect their premises, the bill exempts from prosecution any such security or video surveillance system wherein a written notice is posted stating that the system has been installed for the purpose of security or installed in such a manner so that its presence is clearly and immediately obvious.

Bullshit. Under "Stephanie's Law," it isn't just "perverts" such as William Schultz who can't use their privately owned video cameras to take up-the-skirt shots. The prohibition extends to security guards and police officers and their surveillance cameras, a good number of which are (1) installed in public places, (2) rarely accompanied by a written notice or sign, (3) far more powerful than the camera Schultz used, and (4) quite capable of peering through windows and directly into people's bedrooms and bathrooms. Recent events in Tuscaloosa, Alabama suggest that police officers are just as likely as landlords to use video cameras for inappropriate purposes.

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