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Cyber Stalking and the Law

The general legal definition of stalking includes five parts (or elements) that are necessary to prosecute the crime in most states:

  1. A "willful course of conduct"...
  2. ...of repeated or continued harassment, without permission,...
  3. ...of another individual...
  4. ...that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, or harassed...
  5. ...and that actually causes the victim to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, or harassed.

The term reasonable person refers to the average, everyday person and how he or she might respond to a situation where they are exposed to repeated harassment or other stalking behavior. The response to such a situation would be based upon all of the information available to the person at the time. Essentially, we can simplify the concept by generalizing that a "reasonable person" would respond to a situation in a manner similar to the response of a majority of people exposed to the same set of circumstances. For instance, if a message is left on an answering machine by an ex-spouse stating that he or she is going to come smash all your car windows, and that ex-spouse has damaged your property before, it is likely that if 10 people hear that message, the majority will respond that the threat should be taken seriously. It is reasonable to believe that the ex-spouse will follow through on the threat.

Acts that qualify as stalking include following or appearing within the sight of someone; approaching or confronting someone in a public or private place; appearing at the workplace or home of another; entering the person's property (trespassing); contacting someone repeatedly via phone, mail, or email; getting other friends or family to harass a person on the stalker's behalf; leaving notes, presents, or other items for the victim.

Although stalking is a crime in and of itself, it is important to remember that stalking often occurs along with other crimes, such as trespassing, assault, criminal threatening, sexual assault, vandalism, criminal mischief, and prowling. Although stalking does not require that a person know his or her stalker, more often than not, the stalker is someone the victim knows or has been involved with.

Most states have stalking statutes with corresponding requirements and sentences. Many states also offer the protection of a stalking order, an order very similar to the civil domestic violence petition or order. The requirements can vary, but essentially a course of conduct, including two or more behaviors, must occur that makes the victim afraid for his or her personal safety. Your local law-enforcement agency or family court can guide you as to the steps that can be taken to obtain a stalking order.

The Violence Against Women Act of 2000 made cyber stalking a part of the Federal Interstate Stalking Statute, but federal legislation is still lacking. Therefore, the bulk of legislation still falls at the state level.

In 2006, President Bush signed federal anti-cyber stalking legislation. At the time of this writing, 45 states currently have cyber stalking-related laws. Several states have pending laws, and the four remaining states (Idaho, New Jersey, Utah, and Nebraska) have no legislation. It should be noted that in some states, laws that are aimed at preventing cyber stalking are really meant to protect victims under the age of 18.

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