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State And Federal Anti-stalking Laws

The legal history of stalking is a testament to the limitations of applying existing statutory law, and the passage of innovative legislation to address a newly conceived crime that extends beyond the boundaries of common law offenses. From the ineffectiveness of civil protection orders to the limited utility of a federal antistalking statute, victims are often left with little practical legal recourse. Add to this an often-muted response from criminal justice agencies and it is no wonder that nearly half of all stalking victims are dissatisfied with the law enforcement response to their victimization (Department of Justice).

Civil protection orders. The first line of defense for victims is a civil protection or restraining order that has the effect of enjoining the stalking behavior. These orders are designed to restrict an offender from making contact with the victim, or from appearing at a particular place, such as a victim's home or work. Sanctions include contempt of court, fines, and jail time or prison sentences. In a number of states, including California, Colorado, Delaware, Maine, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia, anti-stalking legislation has prompted more serious sanctions for violations of protection orders.

Eligibility restrictions for restraining orders in many states, however, severely limit their protective value. For example, some states require a legally recognizable relationship between the victim and offender (e.g., marriage) for a restraining order to be issued. Others will not issue an order unless there is a finding of actual physical abuse (Bradfield). Beyond such restrictions, restraining orders are far less than a guarantee of protection. Commentators note that: (1) approximately four out of every five orders are violated; (2) less than 20 percent of these violations result in an arrest; (3) there is an insufficient law enforcement commitment to protective orders; and (4) taking out a protective order, at best, does little to protect against future victimization and, at worst, may incite a stalker to retaliate against his victim (Walker, 1993; Patton).

Extending the application of related statutes. Until recently, the discretionary use of criminal statutes provided a remedy for the deficiencies of protective orders, as well as for the absence of carefully drafted antistalking laws. Over time, prosecutors have come to rely on various offenses found in most state penal statutes—statutes prohibiting harassment; terrorist threats; threatening or intimidating behavior; and telephone threats or harassment, letter threats, and threats using electronic technologies such as e-mail or facsimile. Critics have called these statutes inadequate given their failure to: (1) account for the repetitive nature of stalking, which is a primary feature of the offense; (2) consider the full range of bizarre behaviors found within stalking activity; and (3) recognize anything less than an explicit threat as a crime. Moreover, most of these statutes have narrowly drawn intentionality requirements that further limit their application to stalking cases. Finally, the sanctions associated with these statutes are often insignificant and, when applied, can have the effect of trivializing the serious crime of stalking (Bradfield).

State anti-stalking statutes. Antistalking statutes, prompted by the brutal murder of actress Rebecca Schaffer in California in 1989, attempt to address some of the limitations found with civil protection orders and related statutes. Many are drafted with an explicit consideration of the behavioral idiosyncrasies that characterize stalking offenses; without a requirement that the stalker has committed a violent act; with less significant mens rea or intentionality provisions; and with increased sanctions. In a majority of jurisdictions, a first-time offender may be indicted on either felony or misdemeanor charges; repeat stalking is most often prosecuted as a felony.

The requirements of state anti-stalking statutes generally require proof of a "course of conduct" and distinct threats by the offender that cause an actual fear of death or injury on the part of the victim. The former requires that the offender must have engaged in a persistent course of purposeful action amounting to a pattern of behavior. This may consist of nonconsensual communication, for example, obsessive surveillance, lying in wait, or physical harassment. A majority of states specify the number of incidents required to constitute a pattern of behavior or course of conduct.

Statutes differ with respect to the threat requirement. Some states require either a threat or conduct. Others mandate both a threat and conduct for prosecution. Still others impose threat, conduct, and intent requirements. A minority of jurisdictions requires that the stalker's behavior constitute an objectively "credible threat," that is, a threat that would create fear in a reasonable person in like circumstances.

The intent requirements of state statutes vary considerably as well. Most state statutes require that the offender purposefully or willfully intended to instill or cause fear; others require lesser mental states, for example, "knowing" negligent creation of fear. Only a few states omit the intent requirement. For obvious reasons, the more significant the intent requirement, the more difficult it is to obtain the proof necessary to secure a conviction.

Following passage of the first state statute in California in 1990, many legal scholars, advocates, and legislators predicted a series of constitutional challenges. The predictions were accurate. More than twenty state statutes have faced constitutional challenges for being broad and vague (Karbarz). Only a few cases have been successful beyond the trial level (Harmon). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest state court to declare an antistalking statute unconstitutional, on the ground that it lacked sufficient clarity with regard to prohibited conduct; provided inadequate notice; and had a "vague" threat requirement (Long v. State, 931 S.W. 2nd 285 (1996)).

Model anti-stalking statute. The Model Anti-Stalking Code (Model Code) developed by the National Criminal Justice Association and sponsored by the National Institute of Justice took state legislation one step farther in an effort to address some apparent limitations in state statutes. According to Bradfield "some anti-stalking statutes still require that the stalker overtly threaten his victim, thereby allowing stalkers who communicate their threats through conduct to escape punishment. Likewise, some statutes still require that the stalker intend to cause fear, enabling stalkers who do not possess such intent to continue terrorizing their victims" (p. 245). Many states have amended their statutes in response to the well reasoned and carefully drafted provisions found in the Model Code.

The Model Code's act requirements are generous, allowing for a cause of action where there is:

  1. A course of conduct involving repeated physical proximity (following) or threatening behavior or both;
  2. the occurrence of incidents at least twice;
  3. threatening behavior, including both explicit and implicit threats; and
  4. conduct occurring against an individual or family members of the individual.

Satisfaction of the intent requirements is similarly relaxed. Prosecutors need only prove:

  1. Intent to engage in a course of conduct involving repeated following or threatening an individual;
  2. knowledge that this behavior reasonably causes fear of bodily injury or death;
  3. knowledge (or expectation) that the specific victim would have a reasonable fear of bodily injury or death;
  4. actual fear of death or bodily injury experienced by the victim; and
  5. fear of death or bodily injury felt by members of the victim's immediate family.

Federal anti-stalking statutes. In an effort to "close the gaps" between individual state laws and to bolster their deterrent effect, Congress passed the Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act of 1996. The act prohibits stalking across state lines, makes restraining orders issued in one state valid in other states, and prohibits stalking on federal property, for example, post offices, national parks, and military bases. Violations of the act result in five years imprisonment, and twenty years in prison for violations that result in an injury or acts where the offender used a dangerous weapon. Life imprisonment is prescribed for stalking that results in the victim's death.

The limits of substantive law. The stark reality of the criminal justice system often places a severe constraint on the value of substantive stalking laws, no matter how carefully statutes are written and in spite of the many legislative advances around the United States since around 1990. Consider the risks to the victim that accompany the arrest of the offender. Pretrial detention for those charged with stalking offenses is rare. Arrests often escalate violence or lead to retaliation, with or without victim notification of release. In the unlikely event of a trial and conviction, a prison sentence does little to address the mental health treatment needs of most stalkers. Mental illness undermines principles of deterrence. In the end, the burden of fashioning a workable, realistic remedy to avoid future stalking often falls on the victim.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawStalking - Victimology And Targets Of Stalkers, Motivation, Relationship To Target: Nondomestic Stalkers, Domestic Stalkers