Your family photos could get you arrested. Just ask one New Jersey
Three-year-old Sarah M. is either a toddler in her birthday suit playing in the garden, or a nude temptress with a sultry look who requires protection from the culprits who took this photograph -- her doting parents.
This is the fix we're in, now that computers have opened the barn door on kiddie porn. The FBI has issued blanket requests to photo processing labs and computer repair shops in some cities to be on the lookout for pictures of kids in compromising positions, urging them to call the authorities whether they're sure or not about a picture's legality. The big national chains that have photo processing labs -- Costco, CVS, Rite-Aid, and Wal-Mart -- have company policies that compel them to notify the police about any criminal activity they see in customers' photos. And when children are involved, they're more than willing to err on the side of caution.
"You can't have a blanket set of guidelines because pictures are subject to interpretation based on community standards," says Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS Pharmacy, with about 5,400 outlets nationwide. "But the store managers know it's up to law enforcement to decide what's criminal."
Tragically for a number of people all over the country, innocent family photos turned over to the police have led to financial ruin, divorce, debt, public humiliation, and lifelong scorn as a registered sex offender for mothers and fathers.
Some cases involved pictures much less provocative than Sarah M.'s. Based on the way prosecutors interpreted photos in a few of those cases -- Marian Rubin, a New Jersey grandmother charged for taking nude photos of her granddaughters, then aged 3 and 8; and Jeffrey B., a New York father who lost custody of his two daughters after he shot pictures of them mooning him -- it's possible to spot red flags where our innocence used to be.
Here's how a zealous prosecutor could view Sarah M.'s picture: Smoldering eyes; styled, tousled blond tresses; pouty, parted lips; splayed legs; an engorged navel. And that viscous liquid dripping from the wand onto her thigh? Money shot.
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A blurry line
Just because they didn't shoot the picture for the purpose of sexual stimulation doesn't mean parents who just want to document their child's garden years can't get stuck in the sordid world of pedophilia.
Since there have been documented instances where photo lab employees have kept copies of sexually explicit pictures that were dropped off for development or printing, including from digital sources, imaginative authorities believe that it's possible for child pornography to be inadvertently made and unknowingly distributed. (Adult porn isn't illegal unless it's found to be obscene.)
This has led to a more proactive, better-safe-than-sorry approach to snooping into people's photo archives, which gives civil libertarians the jitters.
The claim has been made that we all have to view innocent photos through the eyes of a pedophile, for the good of the children. But, attorney Andrew McCullough argued before the Utah Supreme Court in a case involving allegedly arousing pictures of underage children, "lots of things are innocent enough and can be misused, but you can't be responsible for everybody's thoughts."
And in Honolulu, after the local FBI office started contacting computer repair shops about what they should be on the lookout for inside customers' computers, the ACLU Hawaii's executive director, Vanessa Chong, was quoted as saying that the G-men's fishing expedition "needlessly violates the privacy rights of honest consumers to find the guilty few."
The question of whether you surrender privacy rights when you hand over a computer full of personal information to a repair shop is still open. Cops say they're sensitive to these issues. Photo labs and computer repair shops "haven't sent us anything that wasn't clearly child pornography, or could reasonably be suspected," remarks Lt. C.L. Williams, in charge of the Crimes Against Children unit of the Dallas, TX, police department.
Lt. Williams acknowledges that there's a gray area when it comes to interpreting photos of children, and often the kids are taking pictures of each other without their parents' knowledge. His unit frequently determines that pictures referred to them are innocent artistic or family photos, "but there's very little artistic value in a crotch shot of a 6-year-old girl." He says his investigators are now seeing pictures of penetration on 2-year-olds.
"We're not trying to pry into people's lives," he says. "I wouldn't want the government sticking its nose into my photography, and I don't want to be the one doing it to someone else. But when a picture crosses the line into child abuse, then it's my business."