A Man Caught Secretly Photographing Kids at Sea World Appealed His Criminal Charges -- and Won

Categories: The Courts

DollUpskirtFlickr.jpg
Flickr user betsyjean79
It's not clear if this picture would be illegal under Texas' improper photography statute, but it probably should be.
Ronald Thompson is not a particularly sympathetic defendant. Authorities say the 50-year-old visited Sea World in July 2011 to surreptitiously photograph young children. When police arrested him and seized his camera, they found 73 pictures of children in swimsuits, almost all of the images centered on the chest or buttocks. A Bexar County grand jury indicted him on 26 counts of improper photography.

And yet Thompson could go free with a ruling from Texas' Fourth Court of Appeals that the improper photography statute is unconstitutional.

The law, passed by the state legislature a dozen years ago, makes it illegal for anyone to photograph or videotape -- and to text, email, or otherwise transmit a photo or video -- without the consent of the subject and "with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person."

Prosecutors have used the measure to go after dentists and school superintendents who put hidden cameras in restrooms; teenagers who photographed naked classmates; folks who wander around Walmart snapping photos of shopper's private parts.

The San Antonio appeals court doesn't have a problem with any of that, per se, writing in its opinion that the legislature has "an important interest in protecting its citizens from covert photography that may invade their expectation of privacy."

The problem is with how vague the statute is. In his appeal, Thompson's lawyers give the example of a paparazzo snapping celebrity photos and a hypothetical man photographing fully clothed adult women on a public street. Both risk prosecution under the law, as does anyone who takes a photo of anyone without their consent. Not only does that stifle free speech, it also interferes with the right to have "unregulated thoughts," the court writes.

Thompson's appeal was a preemptive challenge to the constitutionality of the improper photography statute, and he has not yet gone to trial. He won't, either, unless the Texas Supreme Court overrules the appeals court. Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed has vowed to keep fighting, warning constituents to "cover up while we appeal!"

(h/t Grits for Breakfast)

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32 comments
lzippitydoo
lzippitydoo

Make sure we send someone in to get pics of what his cellmates are gonna do to this pervert!

RoBerts ErIc
RoBerts ErIc

photography is a hobby of mine and well taking photos should not be against the law and everyone is taking photos with cell phones so a law that would ban taking photos would be abused by law enforcement in a selective way which is an infringement of a persons rights

RoBerts ErIc
RoBerts ErIc

if the law stood then most of the secret law enforcement and security cams would be not legal yes

Christopher Billik
Christopher Billik

I mean, it IS creepy af but so are a lot of things we can't control

Christopher Billik
Christopher Billik

I was always under the impression it was totally legal to photograph people in public. That's part of being in public . . . no expectation of privacy.

dc005
dc005

In Texas the Court of Criminal Appeals is the court of last-resort for all criminal law cases,  the Supremes hear only civil cases.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

"Being specific is the essence of lawmaking, and the difference between having a Congress and having a Mom."  P.J. O'Rourke "Parliament of Whores"

Brian Hamm
Brian Hamm

That's a poorly written law, and was rightly struck down.

Blake Wilson
Blake Wilson

What do you expect? San Antonio is crawling with creeps; just check out city hall.

Doug Taylor
Doug Taylor

Clearly this is unacceptable behavior but the slippery slope comes when you try to police any kind of law around the general public taking pictures. His individual incident is indecent and should be punished, but any attempt to police photography on the millions and millions of smart phones is an impossibility and should be voted against. I'm interested in opinions regarding this....

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

Under this law it sounds like people could be prosecuted for posting pictures of their kids to Facebook, since they didn't get consent. And while I wish they would prosecute people that post pictures of their kids to Facebook, this law sounds absurd.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@dc005 I thought the Supremes only performed good soul music.

ryan762
ryan762

@P1Gunter True. A zealous prosecutor could go after just about anyone for perfectly innocent pictures. The law, as written, is awfully vague.

And while defenders might argue that no prosecutor is going to go after someone for taking innocent pictures, there are frequently overzealous prosecutors who go after people beyond the intent of the law.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@P1Gunter Two things i hate, FB commenters and Fb kid pictures.  Then I went out and had a kid who has grandparents out of state and now I kind of understand the kids pics on FB thing.  But i will never EVER like FB comments, especially those that get posted here

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@ryan762 In fact, authorities of all sorts have gone after photographers of all sorts for all sorts of things.Mostly the courts have sided with photographers, but that hasn't kept police from grabbing cameras and in some cases arresting photographers.

The Texas law is notoriously vague. When bad laws get written, innocent people get caught up while guilty folks wiggle free. 

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

@ScottsMerkin Congrats on the kid. But wouldn't it be easier to email, mail, or text the pictures? I fear for kids who have photos taken of them and posted online for the world to see when they grow up. Besides being annoying, it just seems unfair to the kid who has no control over his childhood pictures being posted online that could come back to bite him in the ass as an adult. I'm happily not a parent, but its something I wonder why parents don't consider it.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

Even worse are the kid pictures on all the online dating sites.

TexMarine
TexMarine

@ScottsMerkin you can limit the audience for FB pictures FYI. Never share with public, and you can also limit who can see these pictures (friends, friends of friends, etc) . Mine is always set to friends, so my parents cannot share the pictures with anyone thats not in my friends list.

observist
observist topcommenter

@ScottsMerkin @P1Gunter  If there's anything I hate, it's a bunch of comments made by random people added to the end of articles on the internet.

B1ng
B1ng

We use google drive for sharing photos with family. Check it out if you haven't used it.

observist
observist topcommenter

@P1Gunter @observist  I think teens and young adults posting stupid pictures of themselves is risky, but the vast, vast majority of parents are not going to post pictures of their kids doing job-endangering things. Mostly because teens and young adults make sure their parents aren't around when they're doing those job-endangering things.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@P1Gunter I could email but its so much easier to just hit upload to FB so the wife, mom, dad, grandma grandpa whoever can all be assured that everyone is getting equal treatment when it comes to seeing my little man

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@P1Gunter @observist as I was told by a fellow parent last week, pre-teens and high schoolers now think Facebook is a stupid adult thing

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

@observist I honestly couldn't tell you how, I just know that HR for a lot, I mean a lot, of big companies run Facebook and Twitter background checks on people before they hire them. Ten years ago that was unheard of. As an adult I can control what my footprint is out there, as a child you can't and as a teenager most kids are too stupid to. It just seems safer to me to avoid the situation entirely.

observist
observist topcommenter

@P1Gunter @ScottsMerkin  How do you imagine childhood pictures biting that child in the ass after they grow up?  Is a potential employer going to Google them, find pictures of him/her as a 3 year old drawing on the wall and say "Nope, sorry we don't hire former child vandals". 
?

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

@TexMarine @ryan762 yeah, never really thought about the strangers thing, I just felt more bad for my friends who have to endure weekend after weekend of kid pics.  But I did post last year when he was born that if you dont like photos of other peoples kids you may want to hide me from your timeline or delete me.

TexMarine
TexMarine

@ryan762 Uh no shit. I'm merely addressing how you can limit strangers from seeing pictures of your kids.

ryan762
ryan762

@TexMarine @ScottsMerkin Given that most child molestation incidents are committed by members of the child's family, limiting the dissemination of pictures to your Facebook friends list doesn't necessarily mean you're eliminating people who might get aroused or sexually gratified by the photos.

(Plus, the law doesn't limit the pictures to those underage. If a person takes a picture of his wife in a bikini without her express permission with a note that says "Doesn't she look hot in this bikini?", that person has violated the text of the law.)

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