By Frank Oliveri, FLORIDA TODAY
MELBOURNE – Pro-life activists said they use sophisticated surveillance tactics – including video cameras, binoculars and telephoto lenses – to monitor activities at the Aware Woman Center For Choice.
Activists log names, license plates and the times people come and go from the clinic, said Meredith Raney, spokesman for Christians for Life. Electronic listening devices have been used in the past but were deemed ineffective.
Graham Dugas, a pro-life enthusiast, owns the house [sic] across the street from the clinic on Dixie Way and allows protesters to operate from there.
“We log everybody that comes in and leaves,” Raney said. “It is a habit we have gotten into for years.”
The practice paid off recently when pro-life activists tipped off police that a package some thought might be a bomb was actually test equipment left behind by a cable worker. Law enforcement specialists destroyed the package through the use of a robot.
Despite the assistance, some aren’t happy with the practice, Raney said. A man last week approached a protester and tore a log sheet from a clip board and shredded it. Police were called, but the man had left and no action was taken.
The information gathered sometimes is used to contact women seeking abortions. It also was used to identify a doctor performing abortions at the clinic.
But while such surveillance activities are disconcerting to clinic employees, clients and owners, little can be done legally to prevent activists from continuing, according to law enforcement and legal experts. If electronic listening devices are used, however, there could be a basis for a lawsuit, legal experts said.
They say that as long as the activities are confined to the public thoroughfare – in this case Dixie Way in Melbourne – no law is being violated.
“Just watching someone is not illegal,” said Ken Jones, professor of law at Columbia University in New York. “This is a case of ‘If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,’ and what is happening here is allowable heat.”
Jones is writing a book on slander, verbal abuse and invasions of privacy. It includes a chapter tentatively called Abortion Wars.
The surveillance issue came to the fore after law enforcement officials destroyed the package they suspected was a bomb at Aware Woman Center on June 6. After a rash of attacks at clinics throughout the state in the past month officials took no chances. After the package was destroyed, Raney said, he and other members of Christians for Life looked over their logs. They found notes indicating a cable company truck and workers were at the clinic on the Friday before the package was discovered.
Raney contacted police with the information.
That led Melbourne Police to confirm that the package destroyed was actually test equipment accidentally left behind by the cable workers.
Capt. Ron Bell said the information was “terribly useful.” Detective Rick Carey said that “It was a big relief to figure out what the thing actually was.”
Carey said it is unusual that pro-life activists are keeping detailed information on activities at the clinic but not unlawful.
“Of course it is odd,” he said. “It is not something that goes on every day at a normal business, but in this case, it has been going on for years.”
Carey said police patrol the clinic area often. Typically, two or three people are observed most days on the property across from the clinic.
“It is not unknown to us. It can be disconcerting. I wouldn’t like it either, but I know of no crime from being on one property and looking into another,” he said.
That offers little solace to the clinic’s owners, however. They said it is like living in a fish bowl.
“They take great glee in saying they know what we are doing,” said Ted Windle, husband of Patricia Baird-Windle, the owner of Aware Woman. “It is an outrage, an absolute outrage.”
Baird-Windle said that over the years, Raney and his cohorts have known things about the Windles that indicated more than simple observation. She added the intimidation aspect of surveillance is covered under the law.
“They knew when I was on a trip, and I hadn’t told anyone about it,” Ted Windle said.
“I have made statements about the clinic’s finances over the phone, and it ended up on the Internet the next day. How would you feel if they clearly said they knew Ted was going to Washington and I was going to be alone this weekend?” Baird-Windle said.
Raney said pro-life activists have used listening devices against Aware Woman but stopped. “Some guys have played around with electronic microphones. I haven’t been able to try. They have never come up with anything because of background noise. We don’t have a video camera out all the time. We ought to, but not everyone owns one. We use binoculars to read license plates.
“As far as messing with the phone system, that is Patricia’s speculation. That is garbage. That is illegal.”
Raney said the surveillance has contributed to a decline in abortions at the clinic. Women seeking abortions often prefer to protect their privacy, said Raney said the street-side counseling convinces some women to continue with their pregnancies.
Listening devices may be something the courts would not allow if it were continuing, Jones said. “Electronic listening devices are actionable. The courts are very hostile towards them.”
But the courts offer no protection from being watched, he said.