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Bill Filed Would Forbid Photos of Kids by Sex Offenders
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When a stranger with a camera phone snapped multiple photos of her teenage daughter working behind the counter at a coastal Georgia coffee shop, Vickie Lewis got upset.

When she learned from the police the strange man was a convicted sex offender in Massachusetts, Lewis got enraged.

When Lewis found out there was nothing illegal about the man's actions, and there was nothing police could do to stop him from taking pictures, she went to work to change Georgia's criminal laws.

"I can't tell you how many people I called --- I was on the phone for about three days, if not more," said Lewis of Richmond Hill. "I'd get people and they'd say, 'Well, that can't be. That has to be against the law.' And I'd say 'Well, I was told by the police department ... he could sit up there all day long and he could take pictures of her.' "

Lewis eventually contacted the office of Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah). The result of her work is Senate Bill 1, the first bill filed in the upper chamber this legislative term. SB 1, sponsored by Johnson, would make it a misdemeanor for registered sex offenders to photograph anyone younger than 18. That could mean going back to prison for some, since probation and parole conditions often stipulate they cannot run afoul of the law for any reason.

Such a law would be unique, if passed. Wisconsin is the only other state to recently pass a similar measure, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Wisconsin's law has an exception that allows the parent, custodian or guardian to grant permission for photos of a child.

For Johnson and Lewis, the issue is simple: Registered sex offenders who photograph children are probably up to no good and should be stopped.

"If it was your child, you certainly wouldn't want somebody snapping its picture and then going away," Johnson said. "Whether it's just dirty thoughts, or whether it could build up to some sort of obsession that could lead to a kidnapping or a rape or something else --- there's certainly a right to the person whose picture is being taken also."

But opponents of the proposed law, which has yet to be taken up by the Legislature, believe it violates the constitutional right to free speech, would be difficult to enforce and contains no exceptions for sex offenders to photograph even their own family members.

Lori Collins, convicted in 2002 of statutory rape for having a consensual sexual relationship with a 15-year-old when she was 39, said she is concerned the law would treat all sex offenders as predators.

"Not everyone on the registry is a dangerous pedophile, or a monster, or criminal-minded," said Collins, who now works with prison ministry groups to talk to inmates. "I'm not one of them, and I know many others that aren't. I just don't understand it. I don't understand how far they're going with this."

Collins of Polk County is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a bill last year targeting convicted sex offenders. Legislators passed strict laws prohibiting registered sex offenders from living or working near school bus stops, day care centers, parks and other places where children congregate.

The lawsuit is ongoing, and there are efforts this year to persuade legislators to ease off some of the toughest restrictions after complaints by sex offenders that they couldn't find a place to live or work and by sheriffs who said the law was difficult to enforce.

Collins, who has a 17-year-old daughter of her own, said she understands why Lewis was upset by the stranger taking pictures of her daughter. But she can't imagine making it a crime for her to photograph or videotape her own children and grandchildren enjoying birthday parties, opening Christmas presents, attending Easter services and participating in other special events and rites of passage.

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