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Peeping Tom Laws: Understand How An Invasion Of Privacy Can Become A Criminal Act

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Criminal invasion of privacy laws are typically used against voyeurs—so-called "peeping Toms" who get some sort of thrill or sexual gratification out of spying on their victims. Now, however, a new situation is stretching the boundaries of one state's Peeping Tom laws to cover the digital age and body-shaming as well as voyeurism for the sake of sexual gratification. Before you take out your phone for that next selfie, this is what you should know about the potential trouble it could create.

What Are Peeping Tom Laws?

Peeping Tom laws are specific statutes designed to criminalize the invasion of another person's privacy. Normally, invasion of privacy is considered a civil matter, which requires a personal injury lawsuit to resolve. In states that have enacted Peeping Tom laws, however, the same actions that would ordinarily get you sued can get you arrested instead.

While the laws vary from state to state, they generally have certain things in common:

  • The victim had a reasonable expectation of privacy—meaning that he or she was in a place where there's normally a certain amount of seclusion, like a bedroom or dressing room.
  • The victim didn't realize that he or she was being viewed by the accused.
  • The victim was in a partial or total state of undress.

Some of the laws do not require a specific sexual intent to the voyeurism, although that is the general idea behind the laws. They're usually used in cases where someone is caught looking into bedroom windows for quick thrills or where someone manages to surreptitiously take a photo up the skirt of a woman on the subway.

How Is The Law Being Tested?

In July 2016, a model and former Playmate of the Year named Dani Mathers took a selfie that also included the image of a naked 70-year-old woman in the background. Mathers was apparently outside the women's shower room of an L.A. Fitness gym. The caption on the photo read, "If I can't unsee this then you can't either." Mathers claims she meant to send it only to a friend, but instead she made it public on Snapchat. Mathers subsequently apologized and was also banned from L.A. Fitness gyms everywhere.

While morally reprehensible, some have questioned whether or not her action was also criminal, since there was no sexual intent. Under California's Peeping Tom statutes, prosecutors have decided they are, and the victim wished to press charges.

Specifically, California's Peeping Tom laws make it illegal to use a device "such as" a telescope or binoculars to invade a person's privacy, so a camera would probably fall into that category. It also makes it illegal to secretly record or photograph another person in a private room (like the showers) in order to view that person's body or undergarments. The penalty for a first-time offense in that state is up to 6 months in jail and/or a fine of $1,000.

The real lesson here may be that—in this age of easy digital access—it's smarter to keep your camera in your pocket and your thoughts to yourself because it's very easy to cross the line from a civil offense to a criminal one with just one click. For more information about this and other criminal matters, talk to a defense attorney near you.