Video voyeur penalty too lenient, panel hears

Victim, attorneys argue for bill to increase state's maximum term to 5 years

March 12, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The penalties for violating Maryland's 3-year-old video voyeurism law are too lenient given the seriousness of the crime, which leaves victims feeling "violated" and "dirty," lawyers and one Howard County victim told members of a House committee yesterday.

Learning that she had been videotaped while using a bathroom at a North Laurel school left Amy Hudak with "lifetime scars" and changed the way she looked at the world around her, the Phillips School employee told members of the House Judiciary Committee.

"Since this incident occurred, I've had countless sleepless nights due to nightmares," a teary Hudak said.

She no longer feels comfortable going to sleep alone in her apartment and she has trouble trusting people, she said as she urged legislators to create a "necessary and fair punishment."

"He violated us where we and children should feel safe," she said.

Hudak was one of three people who testified yesterday in favor of a bill that would make video peeping a felony and raise the maximum prison sentence from six months to five years - the same penalty contained in the state's wiretapping statute.

The bill, a version of which also went before the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee for a hearing yesterday, was introduced at the behest of Howard's state's attorney's office, which has won two convictions in the past 18 months using the existing law.

In both cases, Howard District Court judges imposed consecutive sentences, then suspended a portion to allow for probation, said Assistant State's Attorney Lynn Marshall, who prosecuted the cases. Still, despite the fact that both defendants had clean records, the judges sent them to jail - for six months in a case involving an Elkridge landlord and four months in the Phillips School case, she said.

The combination of jail time and probation was possible, Marshall said, because there was more than one victim in each case.

"The current available penalties do not address the seriousness of these crimes," she said.

Increasing the penalties would go a long way toward recognizing that hidden cameras used to tape people during their most private moments are at least as criminal as listening in on their conversations, Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone told the legislators.

Videotaping "is certainly as egregious an intrusion ... as anything that could be obtained with a wiretap," he said.

The stiffer sentence would also allow prosecutors to introduce the cases at the Circuit Court level, where there are more resources for victims, and the felony designation would eliminate the one-year statute of limitations for filing misdemeanor cases, said Democratic Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard legislator who sponsored the bill.

The change is appropriate now as the technology becomes more advanced and available, Quinter said as he showed committee members Internet ads that "invite surreptitious videotaping."

Members of a trade group for private detectives and security guards said they believe the bill's purpose is "laudable" but asked the committee yesterday to add to the bill protections that would limit liability for the work they do.

Members of the committee did not vote on the bill yesterday.

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