The owner of a Mechanicsville restaurant was arrested Wednesday and charged with a misdemeanor after installing a surveillance camera in the men’s restroom.
Dennis W. Smith, who owns Calabash Seafood Restaurant and Club Midway on Lee Davis Road, said he installed the camera to catch bathroom vandals, not nudity.
A grand jury indicted Smith under a state law that prohibits intentionally videotaping a nude or otherwise exposed person, who hasn’t given consent, when that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Smith had earlier stated that he was within his rights because the camera was positioned in such a way that people using the toilet or urinal were not captured on camera.
“There’s no video being taken illegally. None,” Smith said in an interview this month, adding that he was not interested in input from the public or government about how to run his business.
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“This is my business,” Smith said. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat here.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney R.E. “Trip” Chalkley III said Smith was charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail.
Smith had previously said he was unafraid of the investigation.
“It’s a misdemeanor. Are you kidding me? That would be a joke,” he said.
The Hanover County Sheriff’s Office reported the arrest late Thursday afternoon. Smith is not incarcerated and is awaiting trial, said Lt. Chris R. Whitley, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.
Calls to Smith’s home and business were not returned Thursday evening. A woman who answered the phone at his home said he was out of town, while a restaurant employee said she had expected him at work around dinnertime but hadn’t seen him.
John Moisa, a private investigator and former officer with the Lynchburg Police Department, said it’s very unusual for a business owner to openly install a camera in a bathroom.
It’s more common to see employees or outsiders plant hidden cameras, Moisa said Thursday.
“Most people that are doing this are perverts who are doing it surreptitiously, to get video either for their own gratification, or they post it online to these websites that promote this sort of thing,” said Moisa, the co-founder of Spy Safe Inc., which helps businesses spot hidden cameras in dressing rooms, bathrooms and other private places.
Smith had said that even though his camera was above a toilet stall, it merely captured people standing near the bathroom sink, which is visible to outsiders when the bathroom door is opened. Therefore, Smith contended, they had no expectation of privacy in the area captured by the camera.
The Hanover County Sheriff’s Office did not detail Thursday what had been captured by Smith’s camera.
Smith’s video surveillance days were short-lived. He says he installed the camera during the summer after years of vandalism, hoping that he’d catch the next vandal.
After the camera had been up for about two weeks, Smith said, a young man destroyed it.
Smith turned over surveillance footage to authorities, hoping the man would be charged with vandalism. And though a suspect was charged with vandalizing Smith’s camera, investigators also started questioning whether Smith had violated a law.
This month, Smith questioned the lengthy investigation.
“If it takes two months to investigate something like this, you know, this minor thing, Lord help us,” Smith said. “I’m just trying to protect my property.”
Smith said at the time that he’d probably fight back if he’s convicted, adding that his case might go as high as the Supreme Court of Virginia.