'Upskirt' photographs deemed lewd but legal

It's disgusting, the state Supreme Court opined.

It's reprehensible, the court added for good measure.

But it is not a crime to secretly take pictures up women's skirts in public places, according to the high-court opinion handed down yesterday.

The opinion came in response to appeals by two men who challenged the state's voyeurism law.

The men were caught in 1999 and 2000 crouching where they shouldn't — one at a Union Gap mall in the Yakima Valley and the other at The Bite of Seattle at Seattle Center.

One planned to sell his photos to an Internet site that specializes in such shots. The other kept the videotapes for his private viewing but has since gone into treatment.

"Although (their) actions are reprehensible, we agree that the voyeurism statute, as written, does not prohibit upskirt photography in a public place," Justice Bobbe Bridge, one of four women on the state Supreme Court, wrote in the unanimous opinion.

The decision will almost certainly lead the Legislature to change the law, the prosecution and defense lawyers agreed.

In April 1999 at Valley Mall's Sears store in Union Gap, Sean Glas, 28, was caught by an employee who, out of the corner of her eye, saw a flash around her backside, according to charging papers. And there was Glas, low to the ground and taking a photo up her skirt.

According to the charging papers, police said Glas told them "he thought it was immoral, not illegal." He added that he planned to sell the photos — six for $600 — to an Internet site.

In an unrelated case in May 2000, Glas was charged in Yakima County with second-degree child rape. He later pleaded to third-degree rape and was sentenced to four years in prison.

So-called "upskirt cams," sometimes called "upskirt photos" or "upskirt voyeur pictures," are a hot commodity in the world of Internet pornography. Such adult Web sites abound, where visitors supply their credit-card numbers for the opportunity to view digital photos purportedly snapped up the dresses or skirts of women or teenagers without their knowledge.

The other man, Richard Sorrells of Seattle, was arrested in July 2000 after a woman standing in an ice-cream line at The Bite thought she felt him grabbing for her purse. But he wasn't interested in her money.

According to court documents, police said that after his arrest, Sorrells told them, "I'm not a thief; I'm a Peeping Tom. I was videotaping up little girls' dresses."

Both were charged and convicted at the trial-court level under the state's voyeurism statute. The law was passed in 1998 in response to several cases in which charges were dismissed against men who photographed girls in their bathrooms or bedrooms. Before that, such acts were not covered by state law.

But in the Glas and Sorrells cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the new voyeurism statute failed to deal with photographs taken in public places, where people don't have a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

"It didn't come as a great surprise," said Kenneth Ramm, the Yakima prosecutor who handled the Glas case.

Sorrells' lawyer, Kenneth Sharaga, said the problem is that "the criminal law necessarily lags behind technology and human ingenuity. ... Technology has advanced to the point where there are pretty small video cameras that can be used to tape under a lady's clothing. That wasn't brought to the attention of the Legislature."

Sharaga agreed that the law should be changed to address the offensive behavior of people like his client.

For now, Peeping Toms operating in public places can avoid criminal prosecution. But there is still at least one potential deterrent, said the Yakima prosecutor.

"If you get caught doing that, what's the natural reaction?" Ramm asks. "You just may risk getting beat up."

Seattle Times staff reporter Ian Ith and researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.