SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- The District Attorney’s office is seeking legislative action and a reversal by the Tennessee Supreme Court after ‘unlawful photography’ charges against a Sullivan County man were dismissed.
David Eric Lambert was found guilty in Sullivan County Court after taking “close up” pictures of women at stores around Kingsport in 2016. Appeals court judges in Knoxville recently dismissed his three ‘unlawful photography’ charges, but upheld a sexual battery charge against him.
Current Tennessee law says when someone is willingly out in public, such as being at a store, they do not have an expectation of privacy.
“Essentially it means if you’re walking around in a public place, and somebody’s got a cell phone or a camera, they can take a picture of whatever they want. Any part of your body,” said Assistant District Attorney William Harper.
Lambert was originally convicted for taking close-up photos of women at three Kingsport stores without permission. According to court documents, one victim said Lambert followed her out of a Walmart and held a cell phone ‘”down and out” toward the “lower half” of her body.’
Another victim said Lambert followed her around a Hobby Lobby store with his phone “down” and “in a lower position” for “45 minutes to maybe an hour.”
A third victim said she was shopping at Dollar Tree when she noticed Lambert had his phone “less than a foot away from her bottom.” The victim said Lambert grabbed her rear as she was trying to walk away and said, “Nice a–.” This led to the sexual battery charge against Lambert.
But attorneys with the Sullivan County Public Defender’s Office successfully appealed the unlawful photography charges.
“Our argument at the Court of Appeals was twofold. One was that the state did not have enough evidence to convict Mr. Lambert,” said Assistant Public Defender Dustin Franklin.
Franklin said police went through Lambert’s phone and never found any of the photographs, so no photo evidence was ever presented in court. The defense also argued Lambert’s actions fell within Tennessee law.
“The Court of Appeals simply affirmed the prevailing case law in every state in America,” said Franklin. “That an individual does not have an expectation of privacy in what they present to the public willingly.”
The law was amended in 2018 to target photos taken in an offensive manner, such as photographing up someone’s skirt.
Harper said the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office is talking to legislators – pushing to define the law further.
“So that it doesn’t matter where you take it or how you take it,” said Harper. “But if you take a photograph of someone’s intimate part, of their breast, their crotch, that sort of thing, that’s what would trigger a violation of the law.”
Harper encouraged anyone concerned about the issue to talk to their local legislator.
“Personally I don’t think an individual walking through a store should be subjected to having intimate body parts taken on photograph by a complete stranger without any repercussions,” said Harper. “I don’t think that’s something that we as citizens in Tennessee are ready to recognize as being a right someone has.”
Franklin does not believe legislative reaction to Lambert’s specific case is appropriate.
“The tightening of this law is a knee-jerk reaction to media and Facebook comments and things of that nature,” said Franklin.
Franklin said despite criticism, the justice system worked exactly how it was supposed to in Lambert’s case.
“Mr. Lambert was convicted under scant evidence. That conviction was then appealed to the appeals court. And the appeals court overturned his conviction. That is exactly how the justice system is supposed to work,” said Franklin.
Harper said the Sullivan County District Attorney’s office is seeking a Tennessee Supreme Court reversal on the appeals court ruling. His office has discussed it with the Tennessee Attorney General’s office.
“They are considering appealing those decisions to the Supreme Court, and we’ll have a decision on that within the next 30 days,” said Harper.
Meanwhile, Lambert’s sexual battery charge remains. The case will return to Sullivan County court for sentencing. Lambert will be on the sex offender registry for the next 10 years.