December 1, 2011

Brian Dickerson: If the blinds were open, was it a crime to look?

12-1-2011 Michigan:

Can you be a peeping Tom without leaving your own house?

Dr. Howard Weinblatt is about to find out.

Weinblatt is a 65-year-old Ann Arbor pediatrician whose life, until last week, was unblemished by allegations of criminal or ethical wrongdoing of any kind.

But on Tuesday, the Free Press and other news organizations reported that the Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney had accused Weinblatt of watching through a window as a 12-year-old girl undressed.

I happened to be on the phone with my wife when the news of Weinblatt's arrest appeared on my computer screen, and I read her the first couple of paragraphs of the story.

"Creep," she muttered.

And what parent wouldn't second that emotion, armed with the same cursory facts? We have a 10-year-old daughter of our own. And the image that conjured itself in my wife's head, and my own, was of a depraved old man lurking in bushes outside his victim's house, his silhouette invisible against the darkness as she prepared to bathe or go to sleep in her brightly illuminated room.

Except that Weinblatt apparently wasn't in anyone's bushes on the four occasions last month when he is alleged to have "surveilled an unclothed person," a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. He was in his own home looking out his own window and into a window of his neighbor's house.

And if merely looking into somebody's house from somewhere outside the owner's property is a crime, then it's one I (and every other man who ever walked a dog, went for a bike ride, or slipped out for a smoke after dark) have committed, probably more than once.

Where's the beef?

I know what you're thinking: Surely there's more to the Weinblatt case than that. And I and a lot of other dog owners certainly hope you're right.

But neither the Washtenaw prosecutor's office nor the Ann Arbor police are saying much about the case beyond the boilerplate criminal complaint prosecutors issued last week.

On Wednesday, I asked Washtenaw Prosecutor Brian Mackie's spokesman, Steve Hiller, to confirm that Weinblatt was being charged for surveilling that took place from his own home, without the aid of a telescope, binoculars, or a still or video camera.

"We don't want to comment beyond what we say in the complaint," he said.

Well, I continued, where does the complaint say the defendant was standing when he allegedly spied on his neighbor?

"It doesn't," Hiller said. (Mackie didn't respond to my voicemail seeking elucidation of this cryptic response.)

Larry Margolis, an Ann Arbor lawyer retained by Weinblatt, insisted in an e-mail that all the prosecutor's allegations "are limited solely to conduct allegedly occurring within the confines of his personal residence." Nor, he added, has anyone asserted that his client used a scope or camera to spy on his neighbor.

A new frontier?

Neither Margolis nor Mackie's spokesman could cite a previous case in which an alleged peeping Tom was successfully prosecuted for taking in the view from his own house. "We're researching that very question," Margolis said.

Not that any of this matters much: How many people are going to lead their children into the examination room of a pediatrician who has been charged with ogling naked little girls, even if those allegations are ultimately debunked, reduced or abandoned?

Still, it seems preposterous on its face to suggest a man should or could go to prison for watching anything that unfolds in the next door neighbor's window, absent some evidence that he choreographed it himself.

Although, just to be on the safe side, I'm going to talk to the dog about walking herself. ..Source.. by Brian Dickerson

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