Upskirt photography not a crime in Massachusetts

It could be made a crime, but the state’s high court says that the state “peeping Tom photographer” statute just doesn’t cover it. That’s the conclusion of today’s Commonwealth v. Robertson (Mass. Mar. 5, 2014).

The relevant Massachusetts statute says, “Whoever willfully photographs, videotapes or electronically surveils another person who is nude or partially nude, with the intent to secretly conduct or hide such activity, when the other person in such place and circumstance would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in not being so photographed, videotaped or electronically surveilled, and without that person’s knowledge and consent” (emphasis added), is committing a crime. But, the court says,

we interpret the phrase, “a person who is … partially nude” in the same way that the defendant does, namely, to mean a person who is partially clothed but who has one or more of the private parts of body exposed in plain view at the time that the putative defendant secretly photographs her. A female passenger on a MBTA trolley who is wearing a skirt, dress, or the like covering these parts of her body is not a person who is “partially nude,” no matter what is or is not underneath the skirt by way of underwear or other clothing.”

And, the court concludes,

At the core of the Commonwealth’s argument to the contrary is the proposition that a woman, and in particular a woman riding on a public trolley, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having a stranger secretly take photographs up her skirt. The proposition is eminently reasonable, but § 105 (b) in its current form does not address it.

[Footnote:] Other States, recognizing that women have such an expectation of privacy, have enacted provisions specifically criminalizing the type of upskirting the defendant is alleged to have attempted. See, e.g., Fla. Stat. § 810.145(2)(c) (2013) (“A person commits the offense of video voyeurism if that person … [f]or the amusement, entertainment, sexual arousal, gratification, or profit of oneself or another, or on behalf of oneself or another, intentionally uses an imaging device to secretly view, broadcast, or record under or through the clothing being worn by another person, without that person’s knowledge and consent, for the purpose of viewing the body of, or the undergarment worn by, that person”); N.Y. Penal Law § 250.45(4) (McKinney 2008) (“A person is guilty of unlawful surveillance in the second degree when … [w]ithout the knowledge or consent of a person, he or she intentionally uses or installs, or permits the utilization or installation of an imaging device to surreptitiously view, broadcast or record, under the clothing being worn by such person, the sexual or other intimate parts of such person”).

We note, without analysis of them, that in the past legislative session, proposed amendments to § 105 were before the Legislature that appeared to attempt to address the upskirting conduct at issue here. See 2013 Senate Doc. No. 648; 2013 House Doc. No. 1231.

It’s not completely clear that Robertson was indeed “upskirting” in the narrowest sense of the term; the state alleged “that the defendant, Michael Robertson, while riding as a passenger on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) trolley on two occasions, aimed his cellular telephone camera at the crotch area of a seated female passenger and attempted secretly to photograph or videotape a visual image of the area in violation of § 105(b).” Nonetheless, the court treated this as a form of upskirting.

Thanks to How Appealing for the pointer.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.

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