Stalking is a much misunderstood phenomenon in our society and legal system. Popular myths misrepresent the reality of stalking and downplay its seriousness.
For example, a recent commercial for wireless service features a young woman perched in a tree outside a man’s house as she uses her cellphone to peruse his Internet profiles. The woman is portrayed as slightly creepy but ultimately harmless.
In reality, the vast majority of stalkers are men, and most of their victims are women. According to a 2009 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, women are nearly three times more likely to experience stalking than men; 67 percent of the offenders in those cases are men. When men are stalked, the offenders are frequently other men (41 percent) — often the ex-partners of their current female partners.
Stalking is not just a creepy pastime. On the contrary, stalking is one of the best predictors of femicide, the murder of women. Seventy-six percent of femicide cases involved at least one episode of stalking within the 12 months prior to the murder.
Similarly, in 85 percent of attempted femicide cases, the victim experienced at least one episode of stalking within the 12 month period before the attempted murder. (See Judith M. McFarlane et al., “Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide,” Homicide Studies , November 1999, Vol. 3, No. 4.) Stalking clearly deserves the attention of society and of our legal system.
Courts, however, do not always take stalking as seriously as they should. Pennsylvania’s Protection From Abuse Act includes stalking in the definition of “abuse.” Despite this formal recognition, courts are often reluctant to grant protection orders in “stalking-only” cases where the petitioner has “only” been stalked or where the physical abuse occurred in the relatively remote past. This judicial reluctance to protect stalking victims denies victims the full protection of the law, leaves victims exposed to further abuse, and emboldens abusers who see that their actions have no legal repercussions.
The Women Against Abuse (WAA) Legal Center — the only legal provider in Philadelphia specializing in domestic violence services — recognizes the seriousness of stalking. Following a spike in domestic violence murders in Philadelphia, WAA initiated its Telephone Outreach Program (TOP) to ensure that the most vulnerable domestic violence victims who contact the police are aware of available legal and social resources. TOP coordinators look for stalking as a red-flag marker indicating a heightened risk of violence and reach out to these victims.
Attorneys and legal advocates should keep an open mind when speaking with stalking victims. The behavior reported by stalking victims may appear incredible at first. Keep in mind, however, that technology has made it easier than ever for abusers to track and harass their victims.
In one case, an abuser hid a cellphone in the dashboard of his victim’s car and attached it to the car’s battery supply so that the cellphone would remain charged. The abuser muted the ringer of the cell phone and placed it on auto-answer. The abuser then called the cellphone and tracked the whereabouts of the victim’s car via the cellphone’s global positioning system (GPS). The victim couldn’t understand how the abuser always seemed to know her location. Fortunately, law enforcement didn’t dismiss the victim’s reports as paranoia. Police discovered the hidden cellphone, and the abuser was successfully prosecuted for stalking.
Stalking, unfortunately, is often difficult to prove. Victims are frequently unable to clearly recall details about the stalking behavior because of the repetitive nature of the conduct and the protracted length of time over which the stalking occurs.
Evidentiary difficulties are compounded when abusers use technology to stalk their victims. Attorneys in stalking cases will often need to expend more resources than in non-stalking cases to acquire extrinsic evidence, e.g., subpoenaing telephone records to show a pattern of harassing calls.
The fleeting nature of electronic evidence also requires that victim-advocates act swiftly to preserve evidence. For example, many cellphones automatically delete text messages after a certain quantity has accumulated, and most telephone companies do not record the content of such messages. Thus, a threatening text message may be lost forever unless the victim-advocate acts quickly by taking a photograph of the message.
Under a grant from the Public Interest Legal Foundation of Columbia University, the WAA Legal Center has developed a “Best Practices Guide in Stalking Cases” to help address these evidentiary challenges. In particular, the guide focuses on the gathering, preservation and presentation of evidence regarding electronic forms of stalking. The guide, for example, explains how to unmask harassing telephone calls made from blocked numbers and how to trace e-mails from fake accounts back to the abuser. The WAA Legal Center has also conducted trainings to assist attorneys and legal advocates with the special evidentiary problems encountered in stalking cases. Questions about these and other evidentiary issues in stalking cases may be directed to the WAA Legal Center at 215-686-7082. •
Lawrence Szmulowicz is a staff attorney at the Women Against Abuse Legal Center, where he has worked since graduating from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in 2008. In 2011, Szmulowicz served as the anti-stalkingproject coordinator under a grant from the Public Interest Legal Foundation of Columbia University.