Rhode Island Lawmakers Aim to Crack Down on Peeping Toms

A bill introduced Wednesday tries to close a loophole that keeps Peeping Toms from spying in Rhode Island through other people's windows, but gives them free rein to gaze into the showers and bedrooms of buildings they own.

That legal quirk forced prosecutors this month to drop a disorderly conduct charge against gym owner Michael Cecchi, who was accused of spying on a showering woman inside his Middletown health club.

The case fell apart because prosecutors say Cecchi, who maintained his innocence, couldn't have trespassed inside a gym he owns.

"We believe it's unconscionable that this type of abhorrent behavior is not a violation of our state's laws," said Rep. Amy Rice, D-Portsmouth, one of the bill's sponsors.

The investigation began in September when a showering fitness instructor at Cecchi's club noticed two fingers protruding from a drop ceiling above her, she later told police. She screamed, got dressed and ran to Cecchi for help.

Middletown police eventually accused Cecchi of using a ladder to climb next to the women's room and peeking through the ceiling.

The new bill would make it a crime to look with lascivious intent into a place where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, including restrooms, showers, dressing rooms or bedrooms, Rice said. Business owners would still be allowed to monitor their bathrooms and changing rooms provided their intent wasn't criminal.

The bill would also allow police to charge a person with disorderly conduct for indecently exposing himself to a single person, instead of multiple people as required under the current law. Violators can face up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

The attorney general's office discussed the issue with Rep. Donald Lally Jr., D-Narragansett, another bill sponsor, but it had not seen the bill or decided whether to endorse it.

"Conceptually, Attorney General (Patrick) Lynch absolutely supports closing the loophole and he looks forward to working with the sponsors to make that happen," said Mike Healey, a Lynch spokesman.

The Peeping Tom loophole arose in 1979, when the General Assembly revamped centuries-old laws banning tramps, drunks and "known thieves prowling around crowds." The U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar antiquated laws across the country during the 20th century, calling them unconstitutional and overly vague.

Before then, Rhode Island courts dealt up to a three-year prison term to anyone convicted of speaking or behaving indecently in public.