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Stalking has become a criminal offense in the early 1990s and refers to following or harassing somebody against their will. California was the first state to pass anti-stalking laws and penalties in the United States, given the frequent incidents of celebrity harassment initiated by obsessed fans. As “star stalking” was just a well-publicized form of a bigger issue that affected women who tried to escape abusive relationships, by the 2000s, the District of Columbia and all 50 U.S. states had criminalized stalking.
The U.S. National Center for Victims of Crime defines it as “any unsolicited contact between two individuals that communicates a threat (directly or indirectly) or induces fear”. If the criminal stalking conduct takes place across state lines, into or out of tribal land, or is related to interstate commerce, the crime falls under federal laws.
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In the United States, it’s estimated that:
There is a wide range of conducts that qualify as stalking, including:
Stalking is strongly linked to other forms of violence, for instance 31% of women who felt victims of stalking were also sexually assaulted, and 81% were physically assaulted. Depending on state laws and the circumstances surrounding each case, a stalker could also be accused of additional criminal offenses, such as:
The majority of stalking cases are classified as domestic violence and victims are estranged spouses, domestic partners, or any type of romantic interest. In these situations, a protective order is usually issued to keep the offender away from the victim.
In the US, after numerous high-profile stalking cases, California was the first state to criminalize stalking in 1990, through California Penal Code Section 646.9. Within 3 years, every state in America followed suit, with laws regarding stalking, also referred to as “criminal harassment” or “criminal menace”.
Initially signed into law as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2005, defined stalking as engaging in a course of behavior directed at a particular individual that would cause a reasonable person to:
Due to the scientifically proven link between domestic violence and animal cruelty,in 2018 the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act was signed into law,extending the definition of stalking to include "conduct that makes a person experience a realistic fear of severe physical injury or death of their pet”.
Stalking is a controversial crimebecause conviction doesn’t involve any bodily harm. While each jurisdiction defines stalking slightly differently, anti-stalking laws are based on 3 critical elements that establish the offense:
The legislation frequently usestwo other terms related to stalking:
Stalking can be charged as a state or a federal crime, and depending on the case, it can be:
Under federal law, a person convicted of stalking could face:
If the conduct causes death or physical injuries, the stalker could spend life in prison. In addition to criminal charges, people suspected of stalking could be subjected to restraining orders issued by a judge. These orders of protection require the defendant to keep a specific distance away from the alleged victim for a stated period. If they violate the terms, they could face severe punishments, including jail.
Based on the levels of punishment and the number of categories of stalking, there are two main statuses of stalking:
The categories of stalking often include:
Certain states have taken the basic anti-stalking laws a step further, for instance in Minnesota, stalking is increased to a felony if:
Arizona and Florida and fortified their stalking statutes by improving their legislation to include threats or contacts made by electronic communication.
The massive popularity of social media and the growth of instant messaging services resulted in new types of stalking, such as cyberstalking – stalking facilitated by the use of digital, electronic and online means or technology. 25% of American stalking victims reported having been affected by cyberstalking. A related practice is cyberbullying, which refers to cyber harassment committed by underage kids against other minors. The first U.S. cyberstalking law passed in 1999 in California. By 2009, 14 states adopted legislation on high-tech stalking, punished by up to 18 months imprisonment and a $10,000 fine for a fourth-degree charge to 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine for a second-degree charge.
Alaska, Wyoming, Florida, Oklahoma, and California, have incorporated electronic stalking in their anti-stalking laws, with Florida banning cyberstalking in 2003 and Missouri specifically addressing cyber-bullying.
Texas passed in 2001 the Stalking by Electronic Communications Act.
Alabama, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York have legislation that prohibits cyberstalking.
Depending on the state, Cyberstalking can be a Class 4 felony, with any second or subsequent conviction “upgrading it” to a Class 3 felony.
Since 2004, each January is recognizedby the National Center for Victims of Crime as the National Stalking Awareness Month (NSAM), aiming to raise awareness and help individuals and communities across the US identify, prevent and stop this dangerous behavior.Intrusive and harmful, stalking destroys a person’s sense of safety, leaving victims suffering from severe depression, insomnia or anxiety.
Movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up were a great step ahead towards opening up aboutsexual harassment, rape threats and abuse, in a time whencyberspace abusers use tactics like sextortion, revenge porn and online harassment, or newly-added offenses like swatting (calling a SWAT team to someone’s home) or doxing / doxxing (releasing someone’s private information publicly, with malicious intent).