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Chicago aldermen crack down on 'upskirting'

Arguing that there are “a lot of weirdos roaming around,” Chicago aldermen moved Friday to close a local legal loophole that opens the door to an insidious practice known as “upskirting”: using a cellphone camera to secretly take video or photographs up a woman’s skirt or down her blouse.

The Finance Committee approved the crackdown at the behest of two powerful aldermen—Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Education Committee Chairman Latasha Thomas (17th).

The ordinance would “make it unlawful for any person to knowingly make a video record or transmit live video under or through the clothing worn by that other person for the purpose of viewing the body of or undergarments worn by that person without that person’s consent.”

Violators would face a $500 fine for each offense.

Thomas said she was shocked into action after charges were dropped against a man arrested in Massachusetts in 2010 for using his cellphone to take pictures and video up the skirts of women riding trolleys.

It happened after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that a state law governing electronic surveillance does not apply to photographing or videoptaping unsuspecting victims who are fully clothed.

Thomas acknowledged that she knows of no “specific instances” of upskirting in Chicago. But she’s not about to wait around for it, either. Not with entire websites devoted to the term.

“I was shocked to have state supreme courts saying you don’t have a privacy right when someone takes a picture under your skirt. Just to make sure there’s no question in Chicago, we went on and did that,” Thomas said.

“When you are legislating, you don’t always have to wait for the issue. Sometimes you can anticipate it. If there’s never a problem, it won’t be a problem because the law is in place that’s very specific and people know that they are violating someone’s privacy when they are taking pictures underneath someone’s skirt.”

Burke noted that the Chicago ordinance was patterned after a state law rushed into effect after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling.

“If it’s happening in Boston, you can bet your boots it’s happening in Chicago.” And even if it isn’t, it’s “wise to be pro-active,” the alderman said.

“There are a lot of weirdos roaming around. … It’s not a type of conduct that would be described as normal,” Burke said.

“I don’t think [women] should be alarmed. It doesn’t seem to be an epidemic. But clearly we all know there are a lot of sick people roaming around and this is just one other example.”

Chicago Police Sergeant John Nowakowski acknowledged that there’s a state law on the books to prevent videotaping without permission, except during the course of a criminal investigation. But there’s no specific mention of upskirting, so there is “really no charge” for police to use, he said.

“We’ve had investigations regarding this and it makes it very difficult because there’s no specific thing about what the person is doing. When something like this happens, a lot of times the victim doesn’t even know it’s happening to them. We’ve had cases where a woman might be walking up the L stairs and the offender is behind her,” he said.

“They’re photographing under her clothing, but the victim, in most cases, doesn’t know. And if somebody behind that person sees what they’re doing, the victim might be gone. With a city ordinance, we’d at least have a specific charge. When the officers arrest that person with that phone and that video is on there, we’d know exactly what we have.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) accused Thomas and Burke of going through the motions with fines too low to combat a problem exacerbated by social media.

“You can sell this stuff online, make thousands of dollars within moments and then pay a $500 fine? There’s no imprisonment,” Fioretti said.

“The ordinance is just a feel-good pat on the back. It doesn’t do anything to solve a problem that could be out there.”