Police blotter: Wireless voyeur appeals 56-year term

Man who placed a 2.4GHz wireless camera in stepdaughter's bedroom tries to get his sentence reduced.

"Police blotter" is a weekly CNET News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Video voyeur who used 2.4GHz wireless camera to watch his 18-year-old stepdaughter appeals his sentence of 56 years in prison.

When: A Louisiana state appeals court (second circuit) rules on December 13.

Outcome: Court says 56 years in prison is "constitutionally excessive."

What happened, according to court documents:
In early 2005, James Boudreaux was sharing a mobile home with his son and his 18-year-old stepdaughter, with whom he'd been living almost without interruption since she was 11 years old.

What the stepdaughter did not know is that Boudreaux had installed a RadioShack 2.4GHz wireless camera in the entertainment center in her bedroom. The diminutive color cameras sell for $20 on RadioShack's Web site, can run on batteries or an AC adapter, and are part of a $100 surveillance system that includes video-out capability on the base station.

Boudreaux took advantage of that function by recording his stepdaughter for about four months, sometimes while she was dressing and undressing, and at times while she was completely nude. And, in the words of the court: "Other tapes allegedly showed some of the victim's young female friends partially or completely naked, and one tape purportedly depicted defendant masturbating while holding a pair of the victim's underpants up to his face."

His stepdaughter, who is not named in the court opinion, found out what was going on when she knocked on Boudreaux's door to give him some cigarettes she purchased on his behalf. Her stepfather was standing naked in front of the television. He quickly stopped the tape he was watching and jumped into bed--but not before she spotted what was on the screen.

That led her to enter his bedroom later, when he was gone, and discover videotapes depicting her and several friends in various stages of undress. She disconnected the camera installed in her bedroom. She then confronted Boudreaux, who replied that it was his trailer and he could film whatever he wanted.

Boudreaux kicked her out of the home a few months later, at which time the stepdaughter asked the sheriff's office for help in retrieving her personal items. She mentioned the video camera and tapes, which led to a search warrant and Boudreaux being arrested.

Tammy Philley, a female sergeant in Louisiana's Ouachita Parish, viewed the tapes and found that seven different partially nude or fully nude young women had been recorded. Philley noted that there was no evidence that Boudreaux had threatened any of the women he recorded or had tried to convince them not to press charges.

Boudreaux said he was very sorry and blamed the situation on an addiction to both alcohol and painkillers. His adult criminal record included urinating in public (1980), driving while intoxicated (1983), bringing marijuana into a jail when serving his DWI time (1984), illegal use of weapons (1989), simple battery (1990), attempted possession of cocaine (1992) and another DWI (1999).

The problem for Boudreaux is that Louisiana had made "video voyeurism" a serious crime as a result of a case involving Susan Wilson, who found that she had scant legal recourse when a neighbor implanted a camera in her home. Wilson's case became mildly famous and resulted in a 2002 made-for-TV movie.

The Louisiana law outlaws any lewd, nonconsensual "observing, viewing, photographing, filming or videotaping" of "any portion of the female breast below the top of the areola or of any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva or genitals." Penalties are prison sentences of up to five years without parole or probation. (Read literally, photographs of certain body parts belonging to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears might be deemed unlawful.)

Boudreaux pleaded guilty to 14 counts of video voyeurism and was sentenced to four years of hard labor for each count--a total of 56 years in prison. He would also have to register as a sex offender, according to state law.

That is an unusually long sentence. Federal statistics show that the average total incarceration time imposed by state courts for murder is 18 years; rape is 8 years; and robbery is about 6.5 years.

Boudreaux appealed his sentence as excessive, and the appeals court agreed. In mid-December, the appeals court sent it back down to the trial judge for resentencing.

Excerpt from the appeals court's opinion on the Boudreaux case (PDF):
Defendant was 42 years old at the time of sentencing. His criminal history consists primarily of drug- and alcohol-related offenses. In fact, his conviction in 1984 of bringing marijuana into a correctional facility occurred while he was serving time on the weekends for DWI. Defendant's last violent offense was a conviction for simple battery in 1990, which arose out of an argument with his sister.

Any sentence for video voyeurism under La. R.S. 14:283B(3) must be served without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence. As a practical matter, 14 four-year terms without benefit of parole to be served consecutively is a life sentence. Even as a second felony offender, defendant would have been subject to a fixed term.

Although defendant's video voyeurism does not involve any physical contact or violence, it is nonetheless a reprehensible violation of a personal nature. At 18 years old, the victim may not legally have been a minor, but she was a young and callow girl. Defendant perpetrated the crime against someone he had essentially raised as a daughter.

According to the victim, her mother and defendant began dating when she was 8 years old and married when she was 11. After the parties separated in April of 2003, the victim lived with her mother for approximately four months, then moved in with defendant. She lived with defendant and defendant's son until June 2005, when defendant ordered her to leave.

The experience has had, and undoubtedly will continue to have, a significant effect on the victim. However, defendant's activities all formed a part of a single scheme or plan, something that the trial court did not adequately address at sentencing.

While it is within the trial court's discretion to impose sentences consecutively in an appropriate "scheme or plan" case, in the instant matter, the imposition of a 56-year term without parole is out of proportion to the offense and appears to impose a purposeless and needless infliction of pain and suffering.

For the reasons set forth above, defendant's sentence is vacated, and the matter is remanded to the trial court for resentencing.

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