AUGUSTA – Advocates for victims of domestic violence and law enforcement threw their support behind a bill to criminalize revenge porn on Wednesday, arguing that Maine victims have little legal remedy for a practice that has transformed abusers’ traditional control and intimidation practices by tailoring them to the digital age.

The result, advocates contend, is an uptick of publicly shamed victims whose careers or entry into college are jeopardized.

According to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, 44 of the 1,016 women who sought protection from abuse and harassment orders in Portland this spring said their former partners had threatened to post intimate or nude photos of them on the Internet without their consent – the form of retribution known as revenge porn.

The nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income people presented the statistic, gathered by law students from Portland District Court records, in legislative testimony Wednesday on a bill that would make revenge porn a Class D crime, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine and a year in jail.

Julia Colpitts, representing the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said revenge porn has increased in prevalence and is another tool for domestic violence abusers who always seem to be one step ahead of existing law.

“The misuse of private images is just one example of their creative intimidation and control,” Colpitts said.

LAW COULD LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, one of the sponsors of the bill, said hundreds of Mainers live in fear that compromising images of them could be shared by someone they thought they could trust. The proposal, she said, would “level the field” and say to the perpetrator that “they stand to be jailed or fined.”

Nonetheless, some supporters of the bill, L.D. 679, urged lawmakers on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to amend it to avoid unintended consequences. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine also suggested significant changes, arguing that the current draft was written so broadly that it could criminalize the display and publication of photos and videos that are neither obscene nor harmful.

Oamshri Amarasingham, the public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said the current bill could chill expression protected by the First Amendment and theoretically lead to prosecution, citing as an example the women who shared lewd photos sent to them by former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner and the news outlets that reported on the controversy.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, and has 48 bipartisan co-sponsors. The measure is one of at least a dozen proposed nationwide this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since 2013, at least 13 states have enacted laws that ban revenge porn, which is also known as non-consensual pornography.

Fredette’s bill specifically targets those who intentionally display, distribute or share a photograph, videotape, film or digital recording of another person in a state of nudity or engaged in a sexual act without their consent. Supporters argued that existing state harassment and stalking laws don’t deter revenge porn because prosecution hinges on proving that the abuser has engaged in repeated harassment. Threatening to publish photos or videos, or doing so once, they argued, isn’t sufficient cause to prosecute under current Maine law.

PHOTOS HAVE LONG REACH

Lucia Chomeau Hunt, an attorney for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, told lawmakers that the students who studied the protection from abuse and harassment cases in Portland District Court found that over 4 percent of the complaints contained threats of conduct typically associated with revenge porn.

Hunt provided several instances from her own cases. One female client said that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted by her partner, who also filmed the assault and posted it to a community website. Another client was a college student whose boyfriend uploaded nude photos of her from her computer and posted the images on a website known to other students at the university. The woman, Hunt said, nearly dropped out of college before filing a protection from abuse order that included the deletion of the photos.

On Feb. 11, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a York County man had violated a protection order when he notified his former girlfriend that he had created a website on which he planned to post nude photographs of her, as well as a video-sharing website in her name.

However, Hunt said current law provides no clear path to stop the problem.

The proposed bill, she said, “would give victims protection and allow them to end unsafe, unhealthy relationships without compromising their safety, health, education and employment.”

BILL FACES ACLU PURVIEW

The Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit does not track instances of revenge porn because the practice isn’t currently illegal.

The bill faces some challenges, just as similar proposals have in other states. Amarasingham of the ACLU in Maine said the measure is identical to an Arizona bill that passed last year and is now the subject of a court challenge by the ACLU.

The ACLU has argued that the law could be applied to artistic images in books, art and news publications – and that proving consent can be difficult. In other states, questions have surfaced about whether the person in the images agreed at the time to be photographed or videotaped.

The Maine bill also would have few or no consequences for the out-of-state websites that publish and host images, Colpitts said. That issue will have to be dealt with in federal legislation, she said.

Congress, however, has been slow to address the issue.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, has been working for over a year on a bill that would create criminal penalties for people who operate revenge porn websites, while holding accountable those who upload the photos and videos. In early April, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, urged the FBI to aggressively respond to revenge porn complaints while also asking the agency to clarify whether it has enough legal authority power to police the activity.