CHARLOTTESVILLE (AP) Police and prosecutors frustrated by the courts’ inability to prevent a Peeping Tom from becoming a serial rapist are behind a bill being introduced in the General Assembly that would crack down on voyeurs.
Former Orange County prosecutor Rob Bell, who was elected to the 58th District House of Delegates seat in November, said he will introduce a bill that would make the third offense for both peeping and indecent exposure Class 6 felonies, which are punishable by up to five years in prison.
“It will give local police and prosecutors a tool that they can use to stop this gateway crime from growing into something more serious,” the Republican said.
Peeping and indecent exposure are separate misdemeanors punishable by a maximum of 12 months in jail and a $250 fine. But police and prosecutors have voiced frustration with the current laws, which recognize no legal distinction between a first peeping or indecent exposure offense and a 10th or 100th conviction.
They argue that peeping is traumatic, invasive and dangerous, because voyeurs often have a compulsion that can drive them to seek contact with the person watched.
Charlottesville law enforcement authorities asked Mr. Bell for the change after prosecuting a series of sexual assaults by Shannon Malnowski, 28, whom police say has a history of indecent exposure. Malnowski is serving two life sentences plus 125 years for two rapes and an unrelated sexual assault.
In another case, Charlottesville police arrested James Gilbert Stearn, 39, on Dec. 7 and charged him with two counts of peeping through the side windows into a woman’s home.
Mr. Stearn’s arrest for peeping was the eighth since September 1998, and six of those charges resulted in convictions.
Mr. Stearn also has been convicted of indecent exposure. In one of those cases, he was convicted of hiding in the woods behind a dormitory at the University of Virginia and videotaping freshmen women as they undressed. He also pleaded guilty to unlawful videotaping.
“You look at Malnowski and you look at Stearn and you can tell that indecent exposure and peeping are crimes that lead to bigger things,” said Ronald M. Huber, Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney, who has pushed for a change in the law, along with city police Detective Wendy Lewis.
A psychiatric evaluation dated July 2000 indicates that Mr. Stearn is unlikely to progress to contact offenses but is at a high risk for future voyeurism and “possibly exhibitionism.”
Jeffrey Fracher, a clinical psychologist in Charlottesville, said the law for repeat voyeurs needs more teeth.
“You have a carrot in one hand and a stick in the other and right now the stick is pretty ineffective,” said Mr. Fracher, who conducts court-ordered psychiatric evaluations and treatment for sex offenders.
Not all voyeurs and flashers progress to larger crimes, he said. “It’s not often that you would need to use this law, but when you need it, you really need it.”
Mr. Bell’s bill is modeled after similar laws that have elevated the sentences for third offenses of theft, domestic assault and, most recently, drunken driving.