Changes in voyeurism law sought

MONTPELIER — The victim in a 2007 voyeurism case at Middlebury College urged the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to strengthen state laws in cases where someone records images of a person’s private areas or sexual conduct without having first secured that person’s permission.
At issue is bill S.218, sponsored by state Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, on behalf of a Middlebury College graduate of the class of 2007.
The victim, who now lives in New York and continues to request anonymity, alleged her ex-boyfriend had secretly taped a sexual encounter between the two in a dorm room during the spring of 2007.
The victim found out about the alleged existence of such a recording a year later, in May 2008, when she returned to Middlebury College campus for a function. When the plaintiff confronted her ex-boyfriend — Rupert C. Ralston, then 23, of New Zealand — about the alleged recording, he denied its existence, according to police.
Police executed a search warrant at Ralston’s dorm room and seized a laptop computer “as well as a number of compact discs and other computer storage media.” Police turned over that material to the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children forensic lab for analysis.
Police said they found nothing pertinent to the case during an investigation of video files located in the Middlebury College computer server space that had been assigned to Ralston.
But investigators alleged that two of Ralston’s fellow college students admitted, during interviews, that Ralston showed them — on a laptop computer — portions of the alleged video showing him having sexual relations with the victim.
Police subsequently cited Ralston with voyeurism, a charge that could have resulted in a maximum penalty of up to two years in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
Ralston last summer pled “no contest” in Addison County District Court to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct.
The victim, during a phone interview following her testimony on Wednesday, said she was disappointed with the plea deal and urged Ayer to file legislation that would clarify and tighten the state’s current voyeurism law so that similar, future cases could be more effectively prosecuted.
“I reluctantly agreed to allow him to plead out to disorderly conduct, but I actually believe that was insulting,” said the victim, who added she had recently settled a civil lawsuit with the defendant, who has since returned to New Zealand. She declined to disclose the terms of that settlement.
Bill S. 218 clarifies that “it is illegal under the voyeurism statute for a person who is engaged in consensual sexual conduct with another to surreptitiously film or make a recording of that person’s intimate areas without his or her knowledge or consent.” The bill also stipulates that it is illegal to “display or disclose such a film or recording to a third party.”
The victim in the case told lawmakers she had suffered a great deal of humiliation, sadness, anxiety and stress in the aftermath of the incident. She said she has received a medical opinion the related stress was a contributing factor in her recent diagnosis with colon cancer. She is in the midst of chemotherapy treatments for the disease.
Former Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn testified, by phone, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He explained that the current voyeurism law primarily targets offenses in which someone accesses private images/recordings of people without their consent. Quinn recalled that Ralston’s attorneys made an argument to the judge in the Middlebury College case that the defendant and plaintiff were engaged in consensual activity and therefore the state’s voyeurism law should not apply.
It was because of the current law’s failure to address penalties for the unauthorized recording of consensual activity that Quinn said he offered a plea bargain for the lesser charge of disorderly conduct and is now urging the Legislature to amend the law. He explained that when a law is not clear in court cases, the outcome is often decided in favor of the defendant. As such, Quinn said he was concerned the judge might throw out the case if prosecutors insisted on pursuing a conviction on voyeurism.
Quinn also noted the current voyeurism law is vague on what constitutes “dissemination” of an unauthorized film or recording. That could currently be legally argued as widespread publication, rather than sharing with a few friends, Quinn noted.
The victim said she is not aware of any current video evidence of the sexual encounter, “but doubt lingers in my mind. I fear it may come out sometime in the future.”
In coming forward, she said she wanted to “spare another victim from going through what I did.”
The victim said she is optimistic the bill will move through the legislative process this session.
“(Legislators) seemed adamant that this activity should have been more clearly prohibited under the previous law,” she said. “I don’t imagine a lot of opposition to this.”

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