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Rutgers Suicide Case Sets Up Test of NJ Privacy Law

Posted Nov 8, 2010 5:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The case of two college students who used a computer to spy on a gay student’s romantic encounter could be the first legal test of New Jersey’s 2003 invasion of privacy law.

Tyler Clementi, 18, committed suicide after the incident. Clementi’s roommate, 18-year-old Dharun Ravi, and another classmate, 18-year-old Molly Wei, are charged with invasion of privacy in the Internet broadcast of Clementi's encounter. Ravi and Wei have since withdrawn from Rutgers.

The New Jersey law is apparently little used, the Associated Press reports. The wire service was unable to find any cases in which judges have interpreted its provisions.

Lawyers for the students have said their clients viewed the encounter, caught on a webcam, for only a few seconds, and it was transmitted to only one computer. According to Ravi's description of the incident, Clementi was "making out with a dude."

AP cites several legal questions: “What was the potential audience?” the wire service says. “What constitutes privacy? What did Clementi know, and why did he believe death was the best option? For the young suspects, the answers could mean the difference between years in prison, 18 months or no time at all.”

According to the story, the law sets a potential five-year sentence for third-degree privacy invasion and a possible 18-month sentence for a fourth-degree crime. Prosecutors have not specified a degree.

The third-degree crime requires a recording of nudity or sexual contact. The fourth-degree crime requires nonconsensual observation of a sexual act or a situation where a reasonable person could expect sexual contact or exposure of "intimate parts."

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