Peeping Tom case in SLO leads to debate: Who is a sex offender?

A 20-year-old San Luis Obispo woman screamed when she stepped out of her bathroom and spied a hand holding a video camera outside the window.

The woman later learned her 30-year-old male neighbor, Caleb Riley Mulligan, was the culprit. He was a friend who had just visited her home. She said she was taking a shower and going to bed.

County Deputy District Attorney Kristy Imel successfully prosecuted Mulligan for using a camera to secretly videotape an undressed person.

But Imel’s argument to register Mulligan as a sex offender was denied by Judge Michael Duffy in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, who did not find that the case met the standards for sex-offense registration.

The case epitomizes the type of peeping Tom crime that local prosecutors hope will lead to judicial orders for sex-offender registration.

“I think people should have the ability to protect themselves,” said Jerret Gran, a chief deputy district attorney. “Having the information at their disposal could help prevent a repeat offense.”

But Jeff Stein, the San Luis Obispo defense attorney who represented Mulligan, disagrees. He said the Megan’s Law database and public notification should apply to offenders of more serious crimes who pose a higher risk to society.

“The value in the registration system is to apply useful scrutiny to worrisome people,” Stein said. “Before potentially stigmatizing and isolating a person from the community, it’s critical to weigh the risks of re-offense.”

The law’s specifics

The local debate concerns crimes that by statute give a judge discretion to order sex-offender registration.

As part of the legal consideration, judges must weigh whether the defendant committed the act out of sexual gratification or sexual compulsion.

Discretionary-registration crimes include oral copulation with a person over 16 years old and statutory rape.

Crimes that require mandatory registration are those such as rape, sodomy or a lewd act with a child under 14.

The Megan’s Law website has information about more than 63,000 people required to register in California. Names, birthdates, photos, addresses and the nature of sex crimes appear on the website for anyone to access.

Registration typically is for the rest of the perpetrator’s life, though a judge can order the registration during the probation period.Sex-crime registrants must check in annually with their local law enforcement agency to update their addresses. For those who are transients, the requirement is monthly.

If a person fails to regularly register with their local law enforcement agency, they face rearrest and prosecution.

Burden on law officers?

Stein said he believes that broadening the number of registrants makes it difficult to know who is truly dangerous in a community.The funding to monitor such cases could be instead spent on education or health care, he said.

The overcrowding of California jails and prisons also should be a consideration as legislators have sought to reduce jail time for offenders of nonviolent and nonserious crimes, Stein said.

Stein believes that those who commit sex crimes, particularly violent ones, without a conscience deserve the utmost public attention.

Criminals of lesser offenses should have limited registration periods or none at all, he said.

But Gran said that he doesn’t believe registration requirements for lower-level offenders overburden police or prosecutors who must monitor the lists.

“The paperwork is overall fairly minimal,” Gran said. “The public-safety benefit outweighs the time it takes for law enforcement to deal with these cases.”

Recent local cases

Mulligan’s misdemeanor conviction is one of three local peeping Tom cases the District Attorney’s Office has highlighted.Two others, which are pending, involve surreptitious camera setups in local public bathrooms.

The cases fall into a similar category of allowing a judge’s discretion on public notification. In both cases, victims noticed the cameras and reported the incidents.

Jacob Imel, 33, (who is not related to the prosecutor) was arrested and is accused of setting up a camera at Woods Humane Society on Highway 1 last year. His case is pending.

Authorities have a warrant out for the arrest of 34-year-old Israel Mojica, who is accused of setting up a camera at Chili’s restaurant in Arroyo Grande in 2010.

If they’re convicted, Gran said, “We think these are the types of cases that merit (sex-offender) registration.”

Legislation proposed

California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, has proposed a bill regarding sex-offense registration that involves several of the points raised by local attorneys.

The legislation would establish three time periods for which someone would have to register — 10 years, 20 years or life — based on certain factors.

The bill proposes a set of criteria to determine each period:

 A 10-year period would involve a criminal who didn’t commit a violent sex crime and has a “low” or “moderate” risk in state-authorized psychological assessments used to determine recidivism.

 A 20-year requirement would include moderate risk, or whether an individual has committed a violent offense.

 A lifetime registrant would be a high-risk predator who may have repeated a sex crime, committed a violent act, or had multiple crimes since the initial conviction.

Stein and Gran said they support the bill.