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'Upskirt' Photo Ban Sought

When Delegate Neil F. Quinter, D-Howard, was researching a bill proposal in the last legislative session, he wanted to see what neighboring Virginia was doing on the same topic. Like any good researcher, he typed his topic — "upskirt" — into Google.

"I was not prepared for what I got, which was all these porn sites," he said.

Seeing sites like Upskirt.com and ChurchUpskirts.com reinforced Quinter's resolve to pass a law making it illegal for people to surreptitiously photograph or make a video of the private parts of others — even if covered by undergarments — and also for anyone in Maryland to post voyeuristic photos or videos onto the Internet.

Thursday, Quinter told a press conference he was filing his bills early so there would be ample time for both the House and the Senate to consider them. The bill making upskirting illegal died in the Senate last year when time ran out in the 90-day session. The other, to prosecute those who post pictures, did not come to a vote in either house.

Shelley Lebel, a victim of upskirting's counterpart "downblousing," who testified at last session's hearing, stood by Quinter on Thursday and promised to be back in January to do it all again.

"If Britney Spears can get her baby pictures taken off the Web, then why can't Maryland women get unsolicited pictures of themselves taken off the Web?" she asked.

Lebel was having dinner in Little Italy when someone used a camera phone to take pictures down her shirt. Two weeks later, out at a club, Lebel was approached by a man she did not recognize.

He showed her his cell phone and told her, "This is my favorite picture of you."

Lebel was shocked to see a photo that looked into her shirt, "all the way down to my belly button," she said. "You think where's this going to end up? ... What's this pervert going to do with my picture?"

"You don't have to be wearing anything skimpy for that to happen," Lebel said. "You could be getting out of a cab and you put your leg out — that's a shot right there. It could happen to anybody."

But right now, as the law stands, this type of behavior is not illegal. Lebel had no legal rights to prosecute the man who took her picture. Prosecutors like Anne Leitess in Anne Arundel County are forced to charge these high-tech Peeping Toms with other crimes, such as disorderly conduct.

Leitess said she used disorderly conduct laws to prosecute Ralph G. Bernier, a 46-year-old man who she said adapted a briefcase with a camera and then placed it under the skirts of teenage girls in an Annapolis mall. The girls' boyfriends chased him down and caught him. The ensuing disturbance led to the suspect's conviction on disorderly conduct charges, Leitess said. He was sentenced to probation and community service.

"But for that, I don't think I would have been successful in prosecuting him," Leitess said. "There would have been no crime because there is no crime currently on the books to protect women in public places."

Currently, the law prohibits taking photos of a person without his or her consent in a private place - bedroom, dressing room, tanning booth, bathroom — with prurient intent but gives no protection for public places and does not yet address the Internet.

"The law didn't catch up with the technology," Leitess said. The law, she said, "doesn't protect you if you're going up an escalator and someone decides to put a camera between your legs."

Lisae Jordan of Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the group which first approached Quinter about this bill, said, "Up your skirt should be a private place, too. Down your blouse should be a private place."

Lawrence G. Walters, a first amendment lawyer who is involved in the legal defense of adult websites, said the government needs to be sure there are provisions are made for legitimate photography such as news and security cameras.

"A lot of time these laws go too far without exemptions," he said. But, he believes Maryland's government may face more complicated challenges if it attempts to regulate the Internet.

Walters warned that the majority of internet material featuring upskirt or downblouse photos are not the amateur ventures they purport to be.

"In reality, these are paid actors and actresses," he said, but even if they aren't, "There are Websites that post voyeuristic material that are unaware if it is actual or staged."

"The enforceability of something like this ... is dubious at best," Walters said, because it is difficult to find the source behind pictures on the Web. What he fears is these new laws — enacted by 24 states and the federal government for federal lands — will induce a "chilling effect."

Still, legislators like Quinter feel the problem is worth addressing.

"The women who are victims of this live in fear that somebody's going to post secret video of them on the internet and expose their most private areas and activities to thousands and thousands of eyeballs," Quinter said. "It's become all too easy, all too easy to do."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.