Playing At An SUV Near You: Porn

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Andrea Carlton hadn't planned on telling her daughter about the birds and bees until she was 8 or 9. But that changed the night 4-year-old Catherine spotted a porno movie flickering on a screen in a minivan nearby.

"Just like there's no windows in a strip club, you shouldn't be able to see inside windows in a car when they're watching X-rated movies," said Carlton, a 26-year-old from Gurnee, Ill.

More and more Americans are buying vehicles with DVD players, usually to keep the kids entertained. But an increasing number of other people on the road are catching a glimpse through the windows of more than just "Finding Nemo" and "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Depending on where they are driving or parked, motorists could face fines and even jail time for screening X-rated stuff. But where the law may not be clear, some are calling for tighter regulation.

"Residents should not be subjected to those obscenities," said Flint City Councilwoman Carolyn Sims, who is examining whether an ordinance packing a $500 fine is needed. "They do have a right to have peace and tranquility and not to have this exposure to sex in their face."

A driver in Schenectady, N.Y., was arrested last month after rolling past police with a DVD titled "Chocolate Foam" playing on the passenger-side sun visor in his Mercedes-Benz, authorities said. The movie also was rolling on screens set into the car's headrests.

The driver was accused of breaking state laws prohibiting watching TV while driving, as well as another law making it illegal to exhibit sexually explicit material in a public place.

"The detective had a clear view of what was playing through the window. Anyone walking by on the street could have seen it," Schenectady police Lt. Peter Frisoni Jr. said of the nighttime traffic stop. "If he had dark, tinted windows where you couldn't see in, that wouldn't be a public display."

As for Carlton, she was driving in the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove with her daughter when Catherine glimpsed the sexually explicit movie. The experience last fall upset the girl and angered Carlton.

Carlton and her husband sat down with Catherine and offered the best explanation they could. Since then, Carlton has spotted other motorists with explicit movies playing, including a couple watching from the back seat of their car in a store parking lot.

"You're not allowed to have sex in your car, so why are you allowed to watch it?" Carlton asked.

Most states, including Michigan, have laws that make it illegal to watch TV while driving. Laws governing the exhibition of pornography vary by state, but experts say they could be applied to drivers as well.

"I think those restrictions would apply if the content is located in a vehicle," said Jeff Matsuura, director of the law and technology program at the University of Dayton. "You have effectively moved beyond the privacy of your own home."

During the day, it is often difficult to see what is playing inside another vehicle. But at night, the screens are easily visible from a passing car or a vehicle stopped alongside at a traffic light. The screens are also getting bigger.

In Flint, Sims took up the issue after hearing from a woman who was driving with her 5-year-old when she spotted porn playing on a vehicle's 13-inch TV screen. A police officer who happened to see the display pulled over the driver, Sims said, but let him off with a warning.

To Sims, a 23-year police veteran who retired in 2001, playing an explicit movie in view of other motorists or pedestrians is akin to flashing or having sex in a public place.

But Michigan State Police, who have not had any cases of in-car porn, say playing an X-rated movie might not be easy to prosecute unless it can be proved that the motorist intended for others to see it.
  • Dan Collins

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