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Metro

Lawmakers give fast OK to voyeurism bill

Respond to SJC’s ruling on taking photos up skirts

Fueled by public outcry, a bill to outlaw what’s known as “upskirting,’’ the practice of secretly snapping certain sexual photos, rocketed through the Massachusetts Legislature Thursday in an extraordinary show of legislative will.

The uncommon speed of the bill was a marked shift for the Legislature, which often moves at a deliberate and sometimes glacial pace, but lawmakers said outrage over a Supreme Judicial Court ruling the day before spurred the quick action.

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“It is sexual harassment; it’s an assault on another person,” Senate President Therese Murray said of the secret photography and other acts of sexual survelliance that the bill aims to prohibit. “Women and children should be able to go to public places without feeling that they are not protected by the law.”

On Wednesday, the state’s highest court ruled that the state’s criminal voyeurism law did not apply in a case in which a man was accused of taking surreptitious cellphone photos and video up women’s skirts on an MBTA trolley.

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the court’s decision demanded a law banning what he described as such “abhorrent” activity. “We can send a message out there, to the women especially, that this type of action will not be tolerated — now will be illegal under Massachusetts law,” he said.

The bill was sent Thursday night to Governor Deval Patrick, and an aide said he would sign it. That could happen as soon as Friday.

The court’s ruling came in the case of an Andover man accused of capturing images of women who sat across from him wearing skirts on an MBTA trolley on two occasions in 2010.

Michael Robertson was charged under the state’s criminal voyeurism law, which was written before cellphone cameras were in wide use. In its unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said prosecutors did not prove that he violated two key aspects of the law. They failed to prove the women were photographed while nude or partially nude and that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy on the T.

“Because the MBTA is a public transit system operating in a public place and uses cameras, the two alleged victims here were not in a place and circumstance where they reasonably would or could have had an expectation of privacy,” the court said.

The bill passed Thursday aims to address both issues, so acts such as those Robertson is accused of would clearly be illegal.

Under the bill, it would be a misdemeanor to take secret photos and videos of “the sexual or other intimate parts of a person under or around the person’s clothing.” The law would apply to times when a “reasonable person” would believe those parts of their body would not be publicly visible.

Distributing those images could lead to felony charges and prison time.

The bill would also expand penalties for secretly taking photos and videos of “the sexual or other intimate parts of a child.” Language included with the bill means it will be immediately enacted once the governor signs it.

“If the perpetrators out there think they have 90 days in which they can play their abhorrent games and whatnot, they’re wrong,” DeLeo said.

DeLeo also said he was happy with the swift passage of the bill. “I don’t know if we can move much faster than this in the Legislature,” he said.

Bills on Beacon Hill have been known to languish for years as leaders work to resolve issues within their chambers or with outside groups. But headlines sometimes prompt the legislative process to speed up.

In 2006, for instance, after a Big Dig tunnel ceiling collapsed and killed Milena Del Valle, 38, of Jamaica Plain, while she rode in a car with her husband, lawmakers moved swiftly to resolve what had been a long-running battle with the executive branch over which branch had more oversight of the massive project.

Within three days of the accident, lawmakers approved Governor Mitt Romney’s proposal to seize control of the tunnels, including their inspections and the authority to decide when to reopen them.

That bill was introduced in early afternoon and approved before nightfall, as lawmakers used it to dial up the political pressure on Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello.

In 2005, also under Romney, state leaders agreed to authorize $25 million to host evacuees from the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That bill raced to Romney’s desk by early afternoon.

Thursday’s bill may have traveled even more quickly. The House passed the bill without any objections, although there was no roll-call vote. The Senate approved it 39-0.

“There was a sense of outrage that anybody might think that kind of behavior is OK,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

“We moved very quickly to send a message that this behavior is not OK and in fact to criminalize it,” he said.

Jim O’Sullivan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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