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Published: Thursday, 4/15/2004

Snap attacks

CAMERA phones, banned in many locker rooms and strip clubs because they readily capture and easily disseminate nude images, have become citizen weapons against thugs and liars. They can document every event. In addition, the wireless company Nextel is offering law enforcement officers phones that can access the national criminal data base.

As our communications potential is shrinking the globe to village size, it becomes clear that wiretap laws in some states need adjustment. That's because citizen camphone activism may violate state laws in ways not foreseen a decade ago.

This was not a problem when a suburban Atlanta woman snapped a picture of a man exposing himself to her in a parking lot. It helped police identify him as a now former high school principal with a problem.

In New Jersey a 15-year-old foiled a kidnapping by photographing the man who was trying to talk him into a car.

In Japan, an 18-year-old woman being fondled on a commuter train photographed her 38-year-old assailant and got him arrested.

In Pittsburgh a camphone proved a crime hadn't happened.

St. John's University basketball players were cleared of gang rape after a team member gave investigators his camphone. It contained several 15-second clips showing no rape had occurred. The alleged victim later allowed that she was upset because the players wouldn't pay her $1,000 for sex, and in her pique filed her fictitious claim.

That should have been that, but police then said that since the woman hadn't consented to being videotaped, the state's wiretap law may have been violated. Ouch. An unanticipated gray area.

Laws that help citizens and their police surrogates prevent crime or catch criminals need a little more flexibility.

It is especially important now that some police officers have begun to hope that victims, in the heat of attack, remember to use their picture phones to advantage. Ideally it would become second nature.

The world around us could be a safer place if everyone carried a camphone. Unlike a gun, it can't hurt.

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