A smart new tool to fight voyeurism

Steven Powell leaves a courtroom in Pierce County Superior Court in 2012, the year he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for voyeurism.
Steven Powell leaves a courtroom in Pierce County Superior Court in 2012, the year he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for voyeurism. Tacoma News Tribune file photo

Voyeurs wear many faces. They differ by background and personality type, are driven by diverse motives and use a variety of invasive methods in their surreptitious crimes.

Tacomans have been exposed to the prying eyes of men like 30-year-old Adam Randolph, now facing charges for allegedly recording videos while hiding in a University of Puget Sound women’s restroom stall.

We still cringe at the story of 62-year-old Steven Powell, the ultimate creepy neighbor; he was sent to prison for 30 months in 2012 after photographing two young sisters from his bedroom window multiple times when they used the bathroom.

Though often regarded with uniform disgust, voyeurs don’t fit neatly into preconceived boxes.

One stereotype ought to be laid to rest for good: that of the sexual deviant gaining easy access to public restrooms under Washington’s transgender protections.

Hardline privacy activists have wielded that fear-mongering rhetoric the last two years while trying, and failing, to qualify a state ballot initiative. They want to overturn rules allowing people to use public bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding with the gender they identify with.

But depicting transgender rights as some kind of trojan horse for sick criminal behavior just doesn’t hold up, at least when you consider the local evidence.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist has seen countless sex-offense defendants over the 20-plus years he’s worked in the office, including eight years in the top job. But voyeurs masquerading as transgender individuals?

“I have never seen a single incident,” he told us in an interview last week.

For those who fear for their loved ones’ safety and privacy, and those who fight to preserve it, there’s a much bigger nemesis to worry about: the rise of digital technology, the affordability of compact recording gadgets and the increasingly viral distribution of personal images.

Consider two cases Lindquist’s office is now prosecuting:

Randolph, the purported UPS voyeur, allegedly held an iPod under bathroom stalls and recorded videos of women from November 2016 to February. And in August, prosecutors charged Scott Kegley, 39, with voyeurism for allegedly hiding a pair of iPhones in bathroom paper towel dispensers at the Sumner coffee shop where he worked, recording the toilets.

Around the state, scumbags have been caught victimizing women and girls with “upskirt” photos in places such as schools, stores and airports.

But a charge of felony voyeurism requires sexual gratification as a motive. When a defendant is a convicted sex offender, as with Randolph, it’s easier to make stick. But when someone practices voyeurism for commercial exploitation or other reasons, it falls into a legal gray area.

“People do goofy things for goofy reasons, and they aren't always sexual reasons,” Lindquist said.

Some welcome relief is now available through a law adopted by the 2017 Legislature. It created the crime of second-degree voyeurism, targeting people who impermissibly record images of another person's intimate areas with intent to distribute.

It’s a misdemeanor crime with a lower standard of proof (no evidence of gratification needed); that means fewer lowlifes will walk away or plead to a lesser charge. Lindquist has used it once so far and expects it to be a helpful tool.

Kudos to the law’s three Pierce County co-sponsors — Reps. Michelle Caldier, Christine Kilduff and Joyce McDonald — for providing a new way to protect the privacy of vulnerable Washingtonians.

It sure beats chasing mythical trojan horses and pursuing alarmist ballot initiatives.