Court Says It's Legal to Videotape Up Women's Dresses

Sept. 23, 2002 -- Jolene Jang was unwittingly caught on videotape while strolling at a street festival in Seattle two summers ago. Later, she learned it was by a video voyeur who had secretly directed the camera lens up her skirt.

Jang, 28, had become the target of "upskirting," a form of voyeurism in which peeping toms either secretly rig up a system of mirrors and hidden video cameras, or simply crouch down with a camera, in order to secretly shoot up a woman's skirt. Such video usually ends up on some of the hundreds of Web sites that feature sex videos.

Witnesses at the Seattle festival also saw the man who targeted Jang videotaping underneath little girls' dresses. They summoned police, who arrested Richard Sorrells, and later found images of girls' and women's skirts recorded on his camera. Sorrells was initially found guilty of voyeurism, but appealed the conviction.

The case went all the way up the Washington State Supreme Court in Olympia, where to the surprise of prosecutors, lawmakers and Jang herself, the taping of her and other targets was ruled "disgusting and reprehensible," but not against the law.

The conviction of Sorrells, and another man, Sean Glas, who had been charged with taking similar pictures at the mall, were overturned. The justices on Sept. 19 ruled unanimously that the state's voyeurism law doesn't apply because the women were taped in a public place, such as a park or shopping mall, where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

A Flaw in the System?

To Jang, the ruling sounds ridiculous.

"I think it's saying to all the college boys, high school kids and random perverts, 'Hey, it's OK,' " Jang said.

Seattle Police Captain Neil Low, who handles voyeurism cases, said something needs to be done. "I'm outraged that there's a flaw in the system we need to fix," Low said.

As interpreted by the court, the state's voyeurism law protects people who are in a place where they "would have a reasonable expectation of privacy," such as undressing while by themselves in an area where they could expect to be free of intrusion or surveillance.

But the court found the law doesn't apply to filming people in a public place, even if the filming underneath their clothes.

"It is the physical location of the person that is ultimately at issue, not the part of the person's body," Judge Bobbe Bridge wrote.

Washington state lawmakers, who were caught off guard by the ruling, are said to be rushing to introduce new legislation that would outlaw the activity.