Stalking

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Stalking

Criminal activity consisting of the repeated following and harassing of another person.Stalking is a distinctive form of criminal activity composed of a series of actions that taken individually might constitute legal behavior. For example, sending flowers, writing love notes, and waiting for someone outside her place of work are actions that, on their own, are not criminal. When these actions are coupled with an intent to instill fear or injury, however, they may constitute a pattern of behavior that is illegal. Though anti-stalking laws are gender neutral, most stalkers are men and most victims are women.

Stalking first attracted widespread public concern when a young actress named Rebecca Shaeffer, who was living in California, was shot to death by an obsessed fan who had stalked her for two years. The case drew extensive media coverage and revealed how widespread a problem stalking was to both celebrity and noncelebrity victims. Until the enactment of anti-stalking laws, police had little power to arrest someone who behaved in a threatening but legal way. Even when the suspect had followed his victim, sent her hate mail, or behaved in a threatening manner, the police were without legal recourse. Law enforcement could not take action until the suspect acted on his threats and assaulted or injured the victim.

How to Stop a Stalker

Although antistalking laws give police and prosecutors the tools to arrest and charge stalkers with serious criminal offenses, victims of stalking have an important role to play in making these laws work. Law enforcement officials, Domestic Violence counselors, and mental health professionals offer the following advice to victims on how to stop a stalker:

  • now the law. Because antistalking laws are new, some police officers may not know how the laws work. A stalking victim should visit the public library or a county law library and obtain a copy of the state's antistalking law. Victims should show the police the law when filing the stalking complaint and ask whether they should first seek a protective order against the stalker. In some states a violation of a protective order converts a stalking charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.
  • Cooperate with prosecutors. Many stalking victims refuse to prosecute the stalker, thereby leaving themselves vulnerable to continued threats and violence. Some victims fear that prosecution will provoke worse behavior from the perpetrator. Nevertheless, victims should use the legal system and break any bond that may exist between themselves and the stalker.
  • Protect yourself. Persons who are stalked should take steps to protect themselves and those around them. Neighbors and coworkers should be informed about the stalker, be given a photograph of the suspect, and be instructed on what to do if the stalker is sighted. Security officers at the victim's workplace should be provided with this information. Caller ID, which identifies telephone callers, should be installed on the victim's telephone. If the stalker makes repeated phone calls, the victim should ask the police to set up a phone tap.
  • Collect evidence. A stalking victim should collect and preserve evidence that can be used to prosecute and convict the stalker. Police suggest that the victim keep a diary of stalking and other crimes committed by the perpetrator. It is also a good idea to photograph property destroyed by the stalker and any injuries inflicted by the stalker. The victim should keep all letters or notes written by the stalker and all answering machine tapes that contain messages from the perpetrator.

Further readings

Proctor, Mike. 2003. How to Stop a Stalker. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Schell, Bernadette H. 2000. Stalking, Harassment, and Murder in the Workplace: Guidelines for Protection and Prevention. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books.

In general, stalking victims are women from all walks of life. Some are trying to end a relationship with a man, often one who has been abusive. The persons involved may be married or divorced or may have been sexual partners. In other cases the stalker and the victim may know one another casually or be associated in an informal or formal way. For example, they may have had one or two dates or talked briefly but were not sexual partners, or they may be coworkers or former coworkers. In a small number of situations, the stalker and the victim do not know one another. Cases involving celebrities and other public figures usually fall into this category.

Advocates of battered women have estimated that up to 80 percent of stalking cases occur in a domestic context, though there is little data on how many stalkers and victims are former intimates, how many murdered women were stalked beforehand, or how many stalking incidents overlap with Domestic Violence. According to estimates provided by the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, over one million women and approximately 350,000 men are victims of stalkers each year.

Research also indicates that teenagers are subjected to stalking and that they have difficulty extricating themselves from such situations. Stalkers may include a high school classmate or an older man with whom a teenager has developed a relationship. When a teenage stalker is involved, the victim may have difficulty convincing law enforcement and school officials that the behavior is more than adolescent "boys will be boys" conduct.

The motivations for stalking are many. They include the desire for contact and control, obsession, jealousy, and anger and stem from the real or imagined relationship between the victim and the stalker. The stalker may feel intense attraction or extreme hatred. Many stalkers stop their activity when confronted by police intervention, but some do not. The more troublesome stalker may exhibit a personality disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive behavior, which leads him to devote an inordinate amount of time to writing notes and letters to the intended target, tracking the victim's movements, or traveling in an attempt to achieve an encounter.

The potentially dangerous consequences and the terrifying helplessness victims experienced led to calls for legislation criminalizing stalking. California enacted the first anti-stalking law in 1990. Eventually, all 50 states and the District of Columbia passed legislation that addresses the problem of stalking. Initially these laws varied widely, containing provisions that made the laws virtually unenforceable due to ambiguities and the dual requirements to show specific criminal intent and a credible threat. Many states have amended these stalking statutes to broaden definitions, refine wording, stiffen penalties, and emphasize the suspect's pattern of activity.

In most states, to charge and convict a defendant of stalking, several elements must be proved Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. These elements include a course of conduct or behavior, the presence of threats, and the criminal intent to cause fear in the victim.

A course of conduct is a series of acts that, viewed collectively, present a pattern of behavior. Some states stipulate the requisite number of acts, with several requiring the stalker to commit two or more acts. States designate as stalking a variety of acts, ranging from specifically defined actions, such as nonconsensual communication or lying in wait, to more general types of action, such as harassment.

Most states require that the stalker pose a threat or act in a way that causes a reasonable person to feel fearful. The threat does not have to be written or verbal to instill fear. For example, a stalker can convey a threat by sending the victim black roses, forming his hand into a gun and pointing it at her, or delivering a dead animal to her doorstep.

To be convicted of stalking in most states, the stalker must display a criminal intent to cause fear in the victim. Various statutes require the conduct of the stalker to be "willful," "purposeful," "intentional," or "knowing." Many states do not require proof that the defendant intended to cause fear as long as he intended to commit the act that resulted in fear. In these states, if the victim is reasonably frightened by the alleged perpetrator's conduct, the intent element of the crime has been met.

Defendants have challenged the constitutionality of anti-stalking statutes in many states. They alleged that the laws are so vague that they violate Due Process of Law or are so broad that they infringe upon constitutionally protected speech or activity. Generally the courts have rejected these arguments and have upheld the anti-stalking laws.

Once a stalker is arrested, the prosecutor will ask the court to impose strict pretrial release conditions requiring the defendant to stay away from the victim. Violation of these conditions can lead to the revocation of bail and enhanced penalties at sentencing.

Before a stalker is arrested, a victim may obtain a civil protection, or restraining, order that directs the defendant not to contact or come within the vicinity of the victim. If the defendant violates the protection order, a court may hold him in Contempt, impose fines, or incarcerate him, depending on state law. In some states a stalking penalty is enhanced if the stalker violates a protective order.

Protective orders can serve as the first formal means of intervening in a stalking situation. The order puts the stalker on notice that his behavior is unwanted and that if his behavior continues, police can take more severe action. However, enforcement of a protection order has proved difficult, leaving the victim with not much more than a legal document to try to restrain a violent stalker.

Many states have both misdemeanor and felony classifications for stalking. Misdemeanors generally carry a jail sentence of up to one year. Felony sentences range from three to five years, with the ability to enhance the penalty if one or more elements are present. For example, if the defendant brandished a gun, violated a protective order, committed a previous stalking offense, or directed his conduct toward a child, the sentence may be increased. In some states repeat offenses can result in incarceration for as long as ten years.

At the federal level, a number of statutes have been enacted to protect victims of stalkers. These include the Full Faith and Protection provisions of the violence against women act (18 U.S.C.A. § 2265–2266 [2000]), which mandate nationwide enforcement of orders of protection, including harassment and stalking, and the Interstate Stalking Act (18 U.S.C.A. § 2261A [1996]), which makes it a criminal offense to travel across state lines to stalk another person. The act also makes it a crime to stalk a person across state lines using mail, E-Mail, or the Internet. Such crimes are punishable from five years to life in prison.

Despite the nationwide awareness of stalking and the response of the criminal justice system, many women do not report these crimes to police. Failure to report stalking may be based on the private nature of the events and the belief that no purpose would be served by reporting the crime. Police departments and prosecutors have been criticized for continuing to minimize the seriousness of stalking and failing to provide adequate protection for victims. In addition, critics have claimed that courts are too lenient in sentencing stalkers.

Further readings

Davis, Joseph A., ed. 2001. Stalking Crimes and Victim Protection: Prevention, Intervention, Threat Assessment, and Case Management. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press.

Dennison, Susan M., and Donald M. Thomson. 2002. "Identifying Stalking: The Relevance of Intent in Commonsense Reasoning." Law and Human Behavior 26 (October).

Lamplugh, Diana, and Paul Infield. 2003. "Harmonising Anti-Stalking Laws." George Washington International Law Review 34 (winter).

Miller, Neal, and Hugh Nugent. 2002. Report on Stalking Laws and Implementation Practices: A National Review for Policymakers and Practitioners. Alexandria, Va.: Institute for Law and Justice.

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice. 1996. Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Antistalking Legislation. Annual Report to Congress, March 1996. Available online at <www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ocpa/94Guides/DomViol/welcome.html> (accessed February 10, 2004).

Cross-references

Victims' Rights.

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