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Consumer Reports

One-hour photo labs develop policy on reporting child pornography | (KRT) In the fall, a California man received seven years in prison for planning to bomb his college. In March, three Ohio teens were charged with molesting an unconscious girl. Last month, British troops were accused of torturing Iraqis.

Recently, a New Jersey teacher was charged with taking pornographic pictures of a Philadelphia boy.

The cases have one thing in common:

One-hour photo labs.

The accused took a roll of film to a photo lab, where a technician who did not like what developed called authorities.

Laws in some states do not directly compel photo technicians to alert police if they come across illegal acts.

Even so, most photography labs, including those at national chains, have policies instructing employees to call authorities if film contains child pornography.

They say it's a moral issue, not a legal one.

"If there's any hint of anything like that, we would call the police," said Pam Nucera, who owns Cresent Photo Lab in Pennsauken, N.J. "Anybody who wouldn't call it in, I couldn't understand that."

Company policies on other illicit or erotic pictures - such as those showing drug use or nudity - vary. At Ritz Camera and Wal-Mart, for example, employees are trained to contact police only in clear cases of child pornography.

"This is a judgment call," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Danette Thompson said. "We err on the side of caution and protection of the children. Our policy occasionally causes hard feelings."

Law enforcement officials and spokeswomen for national corporations with one-hour film operations say they do not keep figures on child-pornography cases in which photo technicians discover illegal activity. But they say such cases are rare. With the advent of cheap digital photography, authorities suspect that more pornographers are developing pictures on home computers.

"We certainly don't get these cases as often as we used to," said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher. "That's probably because these people who do this either can develop the pictures themselves or aren't dumb enough to send it to a photo lab."

John Hagerty, a spokesman for Peter Harvey, New Jersey's acting attorney general, said technicians should report illegal acts they see on customer film even if there is no legal requirement.

"There's certainly a moral obligation," Hagerty said.

Well, maybe, said Claire Finkelstein, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

She said there would be a moral obligation to report the pictures if a technician believed it might prevent additional crimes, but "balanced against these moral obligations would be the privacy interest of the customer. In the absence of concern about future criminal conduct, the privacy interests of the customer must carry significant moral weight."

A legal duty to turn over such photos, Finkelstein said, is "much more dubious, because the law allows broad latitude to individuals to remain uninvolved if they so choose."

Although some officials say they cannot prosecute photo technicians who do not report child pornography, some lawyers cite other possible legal liability.

Some speculate photo technicians could be prosecuted under child-abuse reporting laws.

"There is an affirmative obligation to report child abuse," said Len Baker, a Haddonfield criminal-defense lawyer. "If a photo lab, or any person, has reasonable cause to believe a child has been abused, the Jersey law mandates that they report that to DYFS."

That is true if child abuse is suspected, said Joe Delmar, a spokesman for New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services. Still, he added, "it's up to interpretation." The abuse, whether physical or emotional, might not be obvious in a picture, he said.

Then there is the possibility of federal prosecution.

Lee Solomon, deputy U.S. attorney in New Jersey, cited a federal statute that requires people who have evidence of a felony to report it. He said he thought it would apply to a photo clerk who saw child pornography.

Still, when photo technicians report allegations of child pornography, it does not always work as authorities plan.

Consider the case of North Jersey's Marian Rubin, 68, who made international news in 2000 when she was charged with child endangerment for taking nude pictures of her grandchildren, ages 4 and 6.

Rubin, an amateur photographer since she was 9, was arrested after a one-hour photo technician saw the pictures and called police. She entered a pretrial diversion program, and the charges were dismissed.

"I know I didn't do anything wrong," said Rubin, who wrote a book about her ordeal, "Naked Truths, sold on the Web. "I didn't feel it was wrong to question me, but totally wrong to pursue the case.

"It's a little like your dry cleaner saying, `This is a suspicious spot on your clothes.' I mean, come on. I don't expect some high school kid working after school to pass judgment on me or my photographic skills."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services