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Can you expect privacy in a store line? If a stranger snaps pictures under your dress?
Published Jul. 30, 2007

A woman in a green dress was shopping for groceries at a local Wal-Mart when a man behind her, armed with a cell phone camera, snapped a picture and walked away. The woman was in the checkout line when a security officer stopped her.

The woman, a 42-year-old Bradenton resident, was incensed that a stranger took a photo underneath her dress.

Keith W. Wilson, the picture-taker, was charged with one count of voyeurism, a misdemeanor, for secretly recording the woman with lewd intent.

What's 'public place'?

But did the woman have any right to privacy while standing there in Aisle 5 of Wal-Mart? The question is central to Wilson's case, which could become part of the national debate on privacy rights in public places.

Wilson's attorney, William Price III of Bradenton, is pushing to have the charge dismissed, saying a person does not have an expectation of privacy while shopping in a local store. Privacy rights, Price suggested, do not extend beyond restrooms and fitting rooms.

Florida's voyeurism law is vague and insufficient because it does not define "public place," Price said.

Other Florida laws, however, say a person's privacy rights are protected anywhere a person can disrobe and feel comfortable that someone is not taping - like in a bedroom or a bathroom.

Taking your clothes off in a local Wal-Mart, or on a beach or on a street corner, might get you arrested.

Voyeurism cases are increasing across the country as more cell phones are equipped with cameras that record still images and videos, according to articles published in legal journals.

Traditional voyeurism cases had long been rooted in secret recordings made in bedrooms and restrooms. Now, there are cases that stem from outdoor recordings and pictures taken in stores.

Numerous Web sites are devoted to so-called "upskirt" images. The face of the victim is rarely shown.

Intimate zones

The Washington State Supreme Court in 2002 reversed two voyeurism convictions because state laws were insufficient to prove a picture taken in public was a crime.

One of the men snapped photos of two women at a mall; the other was at a public festival.

Calling the actions of the men "reprehensible," the court still reversed the convictions. The voyeurism statute did not prohibit upskirt photography in public places. "Casual surveillance," the court said, often occurs in public.

Washington lawmakers have since bolstered the state's voyeurism laws, which first became law in 1998, making it a crime to photograph a person's intimate areas.

Other states, including California, focus more on the individual privacy invasion than where the crime happened.

It is difficult and rare to catch voyeurs because the crime does not involve lengthy planning and happens with the press of a button. Victims are often unaware they were recorded.

Voyeurism cases usually develop after another person sees the voyeur taking a picture. Patrons and store security officers become witnesses in criminal cases.

Anthony S. Patton, 30, was convicted of voyeurism and sentenced in March to a year of probation and ordered to get a psychological evaluation.

Patton secretly videotaped two female shoppers at the Wal-Mart in the 2300 block of 53rd Avenue E in Bradenton.

So-called "peeping toms" can be prosecuted under Florida's voyeurism laws.

In East Manatee, a man was arrested last year for watching his neighbor get dressed in her bedroom.

David Kenneth Paro watched from a bedroom window at the woman's home in the Creekwood subdivision.

The woman's husband - who was alerted about the voyeur by a fellow neighbor - installed a camera in a bush and secretly recorded the predawn visitor. Paro, who had been convicted on voyeurism charges in Missouri, was sentenced to a year in jail.

Wilson, the Bradenton man who authorities said snapped the photo of the Wal-Mart shopper, has pleaded not guilty to one count of voyeurism.

A Wal-Mart security officer said he saw Wilson snap a photo of the woman, according to police reports.

Police searched Wilson's cell phone and found several other pictures that were reportedly taken under the skirts of women.

"I realize it was wrong," Wilson told police. "I knew right away it was wrong. I was told about and (shown) pictures called 'upskirt.' I know I made a very bad decision."

Wilson, a nurse, vowed never again to take another voyeuristic picture.

The woman said in February, in a story about the incident, that she was worried that it could happen again.

"When I do my errands, I shouldn't have to think about someone looking up my skirt," she said.