Prosecuting attorney: Cape man's video, audio recording habit legal

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The video and audio tapes Don Howard makes of the neighborhood around his Ranney Avenue home may irritate his neighbors, but they are not illegal, according to Cape Girardeau Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle.

Howard was confronted publicly during Monday's Cape Girardeau City Council meeting when three of his neighbors complained during the public hearing.

Cape Girardeau Police Capt. Roger Fields said police officers will act as referees for the time being.

"Basically, that's how it is. Don is a squeaky wheel, if you will," he said.

Between Jan. 1 and Tuesday, at least 20 calls from Howard resulted in police visits, according to Cape Girardeau Police spokesman Jason Selzer. The records don't track calls in which officers are not dispatched, he said. Howard admits he frequently calls and said he will continue speaking at the city council meetings.

Swingle, who helped draft a state law outlawing recordings of a person who had an expectation of privacy while undressing, such as at a tanning salon, said there's "no criminal law that would prevent neighbors from videotaping neighbors ... Now, if you were following someone around and videotaping them in public, that could amount to the crime of stalking -- if you are following or harassing someone in a continuous course of conduct."

After returning to his childhood home at 1100 Ranney Avenue on the corner of Locust Street four years ago, Howard installed two small camera and trained them on his neighbors on the next block.

Nikki and Eric Russell, who live at 1003 Ranney Avenue, are particularly upset when Howard records their children at play. Howard, who has had tires slashed and a kitchen window broken, said he's trying to protect his property. One of his tapes includes the audio of a nighttime fight between the Russells and their next door neighbor, Boyd Abbott, with both sides shouting threats and Abbott ending up in the hospital to have a cut lip stitched.

Corinne White said in 13 months in her rental home, 1015 Ranney Avenue at Locust Street, police have visited repeatedly, often during holiday family gatherings. As she spoke in her front yard Tuesday evening, her relatives in the backyard were arguing loudly.

The Russells and White said Howard's cameras "can run all day," as long as they face his own home. But they also don't plan on asking him directly to change. Asked if Mayor Jay Knudtson's suggestion of a community barbecue would help the neighbors find common ground, all involved said no.

"I'm not the bad guy down here," said Howard, recalling a 1992 triple homicide just a few doors from his home. "I'd rather be a pest than have three dead bodies again."

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

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