Bills aimed at strengthening state's video voyeur statute


Two Howard County legislators filed bills yesterday that would strengthen the penalties for violators of Maryland's 3-year-old video voyeurism law in an effort to recognize what one called the "extraordinary trauma" inflicted in such cases.

The proposed legislation from Democratic Del. Neil Quinter and Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader would increase video-peeping violations from misdemeanor to felony crimes, and the maximum penalty from six months and a $1,000 fine to five years and a $10,000 fine.

The legislators said the changes, which were introduced at the request of Howard prosecutors, would place the crime more on par with the state's felony wiretapping statute, which allows for a five-year sentence.

"It essentially makes watching equal to listening," Quinter said. The bill is being co-sponsored by most of Howard County's delegates, he said.

It was the disparity between the penalties in the state's wiretap law - used in Howard County in the unsuccessful prosecution of Linda R. Tripp in 2000 - and the video-peeping law that jumped out at the Howard prosecutor who won convictions in two cases involving hidden video cameras.

Assistant State's Attorney Lynn Marshall, who tried the cases, noted in a recent memo to her bosses that the wiretap law applies to even the most "innocuous" of conversations while both of her video cases involved cameras that had been secretly installed in bathrooms and had "sexual overtones."

"In many ways, the videotape was a more egregious invasion of their privacy," Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said. "Of course, in meeting with the victims, they were really traumatized by this and felt almost sexually assaulted."

Benefits of change

McCrone and Quinter also noted that the tougher penalty would allow prosecutors to introduce video-peeping cases at the Circuit Court level, which is more detail-oriented and allows greater interaction between victims and prosecutors, instead of the busy District Court with its crammed dockets.

Upgrading the crime to a felony also would eliminate the one-year statute of limitations for filing misdemeanor cases, they said. In the Howard cases, it was easy to figure out when the video had been taken, but in some cases victims might not discover the cameras or tapes for years, prosecutors said.

Former Del. Dana L. Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat and the current law's chief sponsor, questioned the need for a change to felony status and an increase in prison time.

Too severe a charge

The felony designation should be saved for the most serious crimes, he said, and while such a privacy invasion "is a serious offense," it doesn't reach the same level as a rape or robbery.

And he said he believes five years is too much for a "single offense" given that such cases often include multiple counts - which could result in several consecutive six-month sentences.

Dembrow said early drafts of the current law included harsher penalties that were reduced in an effort to secure the legislation's passage.

"It took three years to get that bill passed," he said. "This one was very tricky because there's a very fine line between everything from free press and freedom of observation ... and capturing the prohibited conduct we're trying to target."

Howard convictions

In Howard County, Edward George Campion III, an Elkridge landlord, was sentenced to six months in jail in July 2001 after he was convicted on four separate video surveillance charges.

After one of two women who had rented rooms in Campion's house discovered a tape showing the other woman's bathroom, police found pinhole cameras that had been hidden in bathrooms and bedrooms.

In a separate case, Wade Carl Hoffarth, a former maintenance technician at the Phillips School in North Laurel, pleaded guilty to three counts in August, admitting that he had videotaped his co-workers using a school bathroom.

It was unclear how many cases have been prosecuted using the video voyeurism law, although records indicated yesterday at least one other case could not be prosecuted successfully because of limitations in the law.

Tanning salons, too

Del. Susan K. McComas, a Harford County Republican, said she filed a bill yesterday adding tanning rooms to the places where such cameras could not be secretly installed after hearing about an unsuccessful prosecution involving a salon.

"This is just to protect folks who want to go in and get a tan," she said. When they're videotaped, "they feel horribly violated."

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