To ensure privacy, the 12 peep-show booths at Three Star News in Ventura do not function until their doors are closed and locked.
Only then can a customer sit on the padded Naugahyde benches and select one of a dozen X-rated movies that appear on a small television screen inside the dimly lit stalls.
One quarter buys a minute's worth of movie. A white light above each wood-paneled compartment signals it is in use.
"They do what they want in the privacy of the booths," said Mark Padwick, manager of the Main Street book and video store. "I'm just supplying customers with their needs."
But in an effort to curb what officials see as the potential for illegal conduct or health problems, the Ventura City Council has decided that such booths should no longer be private.
By a unanimous vote, the council Monday gave preliminary approval to an ordinance banning enclosed or concealed viewing stalls at picture arcades and requiring the premises to be well-lighted. Three Star News is the only business affected by the new regulations, city officials said.
"I don't think it's felt that there is, at the present time, a great problem," City Atty. Donald S. Greenberg said. "But it's perfectly appropriate to head off problems . . . and enact regulations to avoid having those kinds of things take place."
Measure Was Requested
The ordinance was requested by the Ventura County Coalition Against Obscenity, a grass-roots group that gave the council petitions containing more than 8,000 signatures protesting the "increasing availability" of pornography in the community.
Although city officials said the ordinance was not aimed at pornography or any particular business, the 100 members of the anti-obscenity coalition who packed City Hall on Monday hailed the vote as the first step in ridding the county of smut.
"Our ultimate goal is to see our community restored to traditional Judeo-Christian values of morality," said John Huffman, pastor of South Coast Fellowship. "We asked them to enact the ordinance as a first step."
A similar ordinance, however, has met with mixed results in Modesto, the San Joaquin Valley city whose regulations on viewing booths served as the model for the newly adopted Ventura standards.
According to Modesto Police Sgt. Skip McKune, patrons of the city's four adult picture arcades have simply taken to watching the X-rated films in full view of anyone entering the well-lighted shops.
Since the ordinance took effect in August, police have made about half a dozen arrests for lewd conduct in the stores, mostly for masturbating in public, McKune said. Before the ordinance, few arrests were ever made because of the inability to see what customers were doing in the enclosed booths.
"I guess the urge is too strong for some people," McKune said. "At least you don't have people hanging around, waiting to make a connection with another sex partner," he said. "It's totally opened up the booths. . . . It's like daylight instead of a back alley."
The validity of the law was upheld in a 1979 ruling by the state Court of Appeal, which concluded that a similar Los Angeles ordinance was justified by the need to deter potential health and safety problems caused by patrons.
"Among such visitors, it is foreseeable that some will be predisposed to conduct which is offensive, dangerous to others and even unlawful," the court ruled. "The potential for misuse of the premises, for law violations and for bodily harm to law-abiding patrons is obvious."
But the attorney representing Adult World, one of the Modesto shops, called the ordinance a back-door way of harassing businesses that cannot otherwise be legally shut down.
"So what if conduct is going on inside the booths?" said Michael J. Ward, a Sonora attorney and professor of constitutional law at Humphreys College of Law in Stockton. "What are we going to do about motel rooms and all the other places where people have sex? . . . They're trying to regulate sexual behavior."
The Ventura coalition, however, believes the dissemination of pornographic material needs to be attacked with whatever legal tools are available.
"The influence of these materials, if left unchecked, can be devastating to the moral fiber of a community," the group wrote in a statement of purpose. "Communities which do not control these materials through local laws and public support soon find themselves plagued by the very crimes and activities which these materials portray."
Group leaders said they would pursue three further goals in addition to the ordinance affecting stalls at picture arcades:
Amending local zoning laws to make them effective instruments to regulate the dissemination of pornography.
Bringing Ventura County laws into conformance with obscenity standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Vigorously prosecuting existing obscenity laws, as well as laws against all sexual crimes.