Feds Won't Bring Charges Against School District Officials In Webcam Spying

from the criminal-intent dept

There have been a couple of new developments in the saga of the suburban Philadelphia school district, the Lower Merion School District, that was sued by a student, after that student was disciplined (supposedly for eating candy) using photos taken by secretly installed and used webcam spying software. The school initially claimed that it only used the software 42 times, but an investigation founded 58,000 photos were taken -- including hundreds of another student, who has now also sued.

As stories came out about administrators enjoying spying on students -- referring to it as a window into their own "little... soap opera," the FBI got involved. However, the prosecutors are now saying that they won't bring charges, because there is no evidence of criminal intent. That shouldn't impact the various civil lawsuits, of course.

At the same time, Julian Sanchez points us to the news that after all of this, the school district has finally put in place new policies designed "to govern the use and tracking of student laptops and other technology." Seems like, perhaps, that should have been in place a wee bit earlier.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 3:40am

    Would it be possible to bring civil cases against the actual criminals and not the school district?

     

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  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 3:49am

    Another question: Why is criminal intent needed to prosecute someone for taking naked pictures of someone else's kids? Should that not be strict liability?

     

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  3.  
    icon
    cc (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 4:05am

    Re:

    Should such an egregious violation of privacy be so easily overlooked? I think this is a very good use of civil court time.

    Or, are you saying the school employees should be sued, but not the school district?

     

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  4.  
    icon
    Dementia (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 4:14am

    Re:

    I don't think intent is necessary, they're just choosing not to prosecute on that basis. In most cases, ignorance of a law is not a defense to prosecution, yet if you are ignorant of the law, there can be no intent to violate it, but you can be prosecuted if the DA chooses to do so..

     

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  5.  
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    Michael, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 4:34am

    Re:

    It is not necessary. It is, however, questionable if they have really broken any criminal laws and what they are. My guess is that the DA and state attorney general are trying to avoid setting precedent that this type of behavior is, in fact, illegal in the event that they want to use this type of monitoring to collect evidence in the future.

    They are probably just planning for the future and are expecting that there may be a time in which they will want to remotely activate a webcam in a criminal investigation. At some point, this may become a new form of wire tapping and they do not want to interfere with it being recognized as legal.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 4:36am

    so I take pictures of your kids in their room, doing whatever, with my camera, thru the window at range I shouldn't be arrested or charged, because I had no criminal intent??

    then all these guys and gals in jail for just haveing child porn, are innocent?? since they had no criminal intent?????

    are you really saying that??????
    sounds like a prosecutor was in on the this school districts child porn ring

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    NAMELESS.ONE, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 4:52am

    sue the govt too

    ya outrage
    guess hollywood govt wants to spy on you
    guess why
    they dont care about kids

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 4:57am

    Re: Re:

    Sue the employees rather than the district because if they sue the district, then all that means is cutting science/art programs at the schools.

    Sue the employees and maybe (just maybe) these types of people will learn to curb their sociopathic tendencies. Ok, that probably wont happen, but perhaps the victims' families might get some solace from a court victory over the perverts.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 4:59am

    Re: Re:

    "It is, however, questionable if they have really broken any criminal laws and what they are."

    Is it legal to photograph someone inside their private residence without their permission (if you are not a police officer with a warrant or similar)?

     

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  10.  
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    Michael, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:06am

    Re:

    Let's assume none of the pictures are pornographic - because there have been no allegations of that so far.

    Taking a picture of someone's kids from across the street with the intent of taking their picture is illegal. Taking a picture of someone's house and accidentally getting a picture of their child through the window is not.

    The prosecutor in this case (not that I agree) is saying that the web cam pictures taken were either done so by accident (which is possibly the case if they left the program active accidentally) or were not taken for the purposes of photographing the child - say the purpose of determining where the laptop is.

    I do not necessarily agree (I do not have all the details of the case), but it is certainly possible that it would be a stretch to apply criminal liability here.

     

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  11.  
    identicon
    Michael, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:15am

    Re: Re: Re:

    I am not a lawyer, but from my understanding, photographs are generally acceptable. Law enforcement does not need to get a warrant to take a picture from across the street using a telephoto lens. It is also my understanding that they can take pictures without notifying anyone if they are in your residence legally (i.e. invited).

    The fact that this was a webcam on a computer is questionable. The computer is the property of the school, so they have the right to operate it as they see fit. This is new ground and they may have decided to not prosecute the case for a lot of reasons, but they probably either did not want t prevent themselves from doing this in the future, or they did not want to lose this case and set a precedent that prevents them from prosecuting a real predator that hacks into webcams to take pornographic pictures of kids.

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:25am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Poor, poor troll. You forgot your all-lower-case gimmick. I liked you better that way :/

    In any case, we're not talking about law enforcement officials here. They are merely school employees. Using a webcam to photograph naked minors over the internet does not magically make it not a crime.

    You just try (as a citizen) to photograph another citizen in their private residence and see what happens.

    Plus, if case-history has taught us anything, all the webcam/internet thing will do is lead the judge to the usual "computers are involved -> hacking was perpetrated" conclusion.

     

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  13.  
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    abc gum, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:27am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Sue them all.

     

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  14.  
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    abc gum, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:30am

    Re: Re:

    Maybe the fed did not what to be hypocritical

     

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  15.  
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    abc gum, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:33am

    Re: Re:

    But officer, it was an accident that I was speeding.

     

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  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:34am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Well, suing the school district mean effectively suing all the people of the school district because they're who will be footing the bill.

    Of course, they are partially to blame for letting such corrupt people in their schools and doing nothing about it.

    You know what, I like your approach.

     

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  17.  
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    unknown (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:51am

    Re:

    Why???
    The School district has the money.

     

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  18.  
    icon
    unknown (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 5:54am

    Re:

    Unless I missed something, I didn't see any reference to "taking naked pictures of someone else's kids".
    I would think that if this happened, we would see references to child porn etc.

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:06am

    The thing that makes me worry is that this is a special case, I don't think criminal charges should be brought at this time, it was stupid yes, criminal maybe, but in a world that will be full of cameras in a not so distant future maybe this is not a bad thing and the benefit of the doubt should apply, now if there is another one involving the same people doing the exact same thing they should get some smack.

    The good thing is that it proves that people can be monitored remotely by simple electronic devices pervasive in our lifes, the laptop's are just one example, but I don't doubt that cellphones are capable of transmitting sound and video also, maybe people should put those in a box for charging also.

    Right now the laws don't make distinctions of what is allowed or not and I don't think it is a good idea to give or take any thing with laws until we understand what the consequences really are.

    Cars have cameras today, if you are backing up your car and you get somebody undressing that would be criminal? anybody knows what the law says? should people enact laws against recording someone those instances could be used to criminalize others? right now is not just the government that could get in trouble with such things.

     

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  20.  
    icon
    Cohen (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:12am

    No "Right to Privacy"

    One of the biggest constitutional issues for the past fifty years has been the lack of a specific "right to privacy."

    These children were spied upon. Their privacy was invaded.

    We would hope that somewhere there is a concept of privacy that was illegally broken.

    But there is no right to privacy.

    Many cases brought to the state and federal courts try to make the case that there is a right to privacy.

    But strict constitutional judges have found no right to privacy.

    Some states have created laws that make it a crime to invade one's privacy. (Remember the landlord who installed spy cameras in the apartment he rented to a family. They had to figure out a law that he had broken. And only added a privacy law after the fact.)

    So, for everyone who thinks you have a "right to privacy." You don't.

     

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  21.  
    icon
    unknown (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:15am

    Re:

    "Cars have cameras today, if you are backing up your car and you get somebody undressing that would be criminal? "
    If this was the case, you could assist the prosecution of the person getting undressed. The cameras are mounted low in the rear of vehicles. If you caught someone naked on it, they would be outside in public behind your car. I do not believe the focal length of the lens is such that you could see anything more than a few feet away clearly.

     

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  22.  
    icon
    average_joe (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:17am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    In any case, we're not talking about law enforcement officials here. They are merely school employees.

    It's my understanding that public school employees are agents of the government just like the police are--the same search and seizure rules apply.

     

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  23.  
    icon
    ofb2632 (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:27am

    What about invasion of privacy?

    Or even worse... Child pornography?

    How about illegally hacking across state lines? I'm quite sure they did not have expressed permission to activate the webcams at any time. If that transmission went from the webcam to a server outside of the state, to my knowledge, it is a federal crime.

     

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  24.  
    icon
    Berenerd (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:28am

    Spying isn't criminal...

    Good to know...guess we shouldn't have deported those Russian spies cause what they did was completely legal...right? At least let the redhead back...she was cute!

     

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  25.  
    icon
    ofb2632 (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:31am

    What about copyright issues???? Corporations are suing over it. If they are in the privacy of their own house and someone takes an unauthorized picture, is that a violation?

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:36am

    "The computer is the property of the school, so they have the right to operate it as they see fit."

    By that logic, I have a gun and the right to operate it as I see fit.. I doubt it.

    I have a AV system on the top of my bike helmet, I have the right to operate it as I see fit... a bunch of 90 IQ police officers and DAs in Maryland disagree..

    I have a tape recorder, I have the right to operate it as I see fit.. I don't believe that current laws in most states agree...


    The school gives me a text book with a tracking device.. I don't think that gives them the right to track my coming and goings.

    The Michaels of the world with voting rights scare me.

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    known coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:42am

    i am surprised the feds did not prosecute

    They are usually jealous of locals who think up stuff first.

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:51am

    "Feds Won't Bring Charges Against School District Officials In Webcam Spying"

    Yeah, they're too busy killing innocent civilians and trying to cover it up by going after Wikileaks.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:52am

    Re:

    Oh, and lets not forget that they're too busy trying to enforce copyright infringement for Disney et al. You know, they have more important things to worry about than this.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:54am

    Re: No "Right to Privacy"

    If only there were some sort of Constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    icon
    average_joe (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 6:56am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I should have mentioned that I was talking about actions taken by school officials outside of school. Inside school, the rules are different as the school has "special needs" with respect to search and seizures.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    icon
    cc (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 7:02am

    Re: Re: Re:

    The thing is, we want all schools to put rules in place to prevent this sort of thing. Thus, the school should bare the liability for authorising this, not the employees.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    icon
    average_joe (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 7:04am

    Re: Re: No "Right to Privacy"

    LOL!

     

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  34.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 8:19am

    http://cbs3.com/local/lower.merion.school.2.1863985.html

    Good news, everyone! LM has revised their webcam rules!

    Instead of clearing out of any future hot water and ditching the whole spy thing altogether.

    GPS isn't enough to track a lost or stolen laptop?

     

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  35.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 8:33am

    Re:

    Remember the case of the dumb thief that stole a mac and got photographed?

    The school wants that capability.

     

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  36.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 8:42am

    Re: Re:

    Nope, you are assuming the only cameras that exist are the rear view ones when you can have the side ones, besides todays car don't record those images yet, but they could in the future record pieces for legal reasons, but this is besides the point, technology is advancing and soon we all will have recording capabilities that will be invisible(transparent) to other people and they will be ubiquitous too, laws today governing those things could be obsolete in 10 to 20 years and could cause a lot of pain down the road, yah what they guys from the school did was wrong but that justifies passing laws that can probably be used to abuse freedoms in the future?

    How do we do smart choices if we don't know how things work and their consequences?

    I'm outraged by the spying thing too, but I don't want more laws or lawsuits, I want sanity back inside society, the good old discrimination works for me in this case.

     

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  37.  
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    Thomas (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 8:45am

    but what about..

    possible gifts from the school district to the feds? This is usually a great way to get them off your ass.

     

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  38.  
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    TtfnJohn (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 9:27am

    New rules?

    "the school district has finally put in place new policies designed "to govern the use and tracking of student laptops and other technology.""

    Such as don't turn the tracking crud ON until the laptop is reported as stolen?

    Oh, common sense. That's surgically removed from bureaucrats at birth. Sorry.

     

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  39.  
    icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 9:35am

    Re: Re:

    I have a backup camera in my pickup and I can see approximately a half to quarter block down the road with it.

    Like most (all?) it's a fish eye lens so what it's really good for is detecting motion and approximate size rather than seeing license plates or anything like that and the closer you get to the edges of the camera field the more distorted everything becomes. I also have sensors in the rear to back up the camera which are often more useful than the camera is.

    So for seeing someone undressing in the middle of the road all I'd likely see is skin tones rather than a person and if they're in sensor field the truck will start beeping like crazy in the cab to tell me some idiot, potential Darwin Award prize winner, is behind me.

     

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  40.  
    icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 9:37am

    Re:

    I hate to tell you this but under current legislation Mike is right. I'd be more scared of legislators myself.

     

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  41.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:04am

    Re:

    Would it be possible to bring civil cases against the actual criminals and not the school district?

    Good luck with that now that the feds have effectively declared that what they did was perfectly legal.

     

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  42.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:14am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Sure, but the only problem is that the parents would be suing the school district which is funded by the taxes they pay...

    It seems like the school district cost of dealing with this issue has gone past the $1 million mark. That alone may be reason enough for the parents to take action to replace the school board -- with people who are willing to replace the school staff involved in this incident.

     

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  43.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:15am

    Fed Connection?

    I'm starting to wonder if maybe the feds had some sort of connection to this in the first place. Maybe some sort of school-assisted warrantless surveillance by the feds themselves? If not at this school in particular, then possibly elsewhere and they don't want the legality of it questioned? It could even be that the feds have a backdoor into the program and want to see it spread to as many schools as possible.

     

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  44.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:23am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Speeding would be negligence, not ignorance. Very large difference here.

     

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  45.  
    icon
    droslovinia (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:26am

    Sue sue sue!

    This is one of those great places where lawsuits will help everyone, except possibly the people who took the pictures. BTW, if you take naked pictures of someone under 18 and transmit them over a network, that is a serious federal crime that they don't just let you walk away from, so let's assume that this didn't happen here.

    But they can sue the school system and the employees that did it, which is another way to say "sue the school's insurance company and the liability insurance companies of the employees." Parts of the suit are bound to be thrown out, but the ones that stick will put the fear into the rest. I'm sure that the parents are not having problems finding attorneys who want a piece of this!

     

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  46.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:28am

    Re:

    Please back up your argument here.

    There was no child pornography. If you believe otherwise, link it.

    There also was no 'hacking.' This is software that was installed on computers that the school owns, not the children, thus there can be no charges of illegal access against the school.

    Invasion of privacy /might/ be a possibility, but guess what? There was no intent to such an invasion, and the prosecutor isn't pursuing what likely would be a very weak case, anyways.

     

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  47.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 1:12pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Speeding would be negligence, not ignorance. Very large difference here.

    But still accidental, which was the excuse claimed in the comment.

     

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  48.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 18th, 2010 @ 1:17pm

    Told Ya

    I've been saying from the beginning of this that the Feds would never prosecute the school aver this. This is the kind of thing the gov't wants to encourage these days, not discourage.

     

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  49.  
    icon
    G Thompson (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 8:44pm

    Re: Re:

    If any of the images are classified as 'Indecent Images' (or Child Pornography for the layperson) then there is no intent necessary for the laying of criminal charges in these cases. Mens Rae does not need to be proven, and lack of such is no defence under current US statutes [same applies for EU/CAN/UK/NZ/AU laws], though "state of mind' can have some forbearance on matters in a criminal trial situation.

    From reading the actual complaints in this case(s) whether there is Indecent Imaging should not be first chargeable anyway instead trespass should be.

    The allegation is that the school KNOWINGLY allowed a device to enter PRIVATE premises, with the ability to RECORD images (and maybe audio which is an entirely other problem) WITHOUT CONSENT of the owners of those premises.

    The owners of the premises had an absolute expectation of privacy. The pictures were taken. The pictures were viewed & therefore published (even if only to a few). The pictures were archived for future perusal

    Though some states in the USA have a two party system for recording of visual/audio. Meaning all parties to a recording have to agree, most states are on the standard One party system (only the person recording needs to be in attendance). These don't even come under that system since they were done remotely.. That is trespass at least.. Espionage at worst (maybe one of the parents had a job with the DoD or DoE and had secret clearance.. could be an interesting spin on that). Also there was an absolute expectation of privacy.

    The taking of these pictures cannot be confused with the rule that anyone on public property can take pictures of anything/anyone seen from that public property , unless they are being used for lewd purposes, due to all of the above facts.

    If it was myself as one of the parents involved in this debacle, I would seriously talk to some lawyers about a charge of misprision on the actual DA/FBI themselves now. But hey.. thats me

     

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  50.  
    icon
    kryptonianjorel (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:54pm

    Re: Re:

    Good thing precedent is set by cases, and not the lack thereof...

     

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  51.  
    icon
    BearGriz72 (profile), Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:56pm

    Re: Re:

    "Taking a picture of someone's kids from across the street with the intent of taking their picture is illegal."

    No it is not...

    As long as I am in a publicly accessible area I can take any picture I would like. You might be thinking of publicity rights but this did not happen in California.

     

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  52.  
    identicon
    fud, Aug 19th, 2010 @ 6:30am

    fud

    fud

     

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  53.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 19th, 2010 @ 8:39am

    Re: Re:

    How can you say there is no intent? Here is how any rational persons thought process goes.. Its 9 pm, the odds that the laptop is in a private home is pretty good. Now i turn the camera on to see what is happening. That is clearly invasion of privacy. We were told that they considered it their own personal soap opera. That clearly showed an invasion of privacy.

    As for the most serious of crimes. If in their attempt to watch their own personal soap opera, if they even viewed the children dressing or undressing in the privacy of their own room, weather or not they saved the pics, that is most definitely child porn.

     

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  54.  
    identicon
    monkyyy, Aug 19th, 2010 @ 9:37am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    how in the world can u justify this.....

     

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  55.  
    identicon
    monkyyy, Aug 19th, 2010 @ 9:54am

    everyday im given a reason to hate school even more -__-

     

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  56.  
    icon
    The eejit (profile), Aug 19th, 2010 @ 2:42pm

    Re: New rules?

    I'm a bureaucrat and I'm okay/I sleep all night and I screw-up all day

    I cut our costs, I eat my lunch,/ I go to the WC/On Wednesdays I go and watch Fox and Glee.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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