When is it stalking and what can you do about it?
Lisa* met the man who would subsequently stalk her for nearly 30 years when she was a first-year college student. While taking some evening classes to catch up on credits she needed in order to transfer to another university, she was befriended by a man, Brian, twice her age. He was married with a family and coincidently worked at the university Lisa was hoping to attend in the next year. Lisa was struggling with the accounting class they were both taking and he offered to help her. Lisa assumed theirs was a friendship, just classmates getting through a semester of courses. Nothing more. But this was not the case for Brian, and that became clear about three months after she had first met him. One evening as they left class, Brian walked Lisa to her car and presented her with a Christmas gift. Fittingly for the accounting class, Brian gave Lisa a calculator. And then he grabbed her and kissed her. Lisa pushed Brian from her and was shocked at his behavior. She told him to leave her alone. The pair argued and parted. And that’s when the stalking commenced. For more than two decades, Brian found ways to communicate with Lisa and track both her location and her activity. He mailed letters to her house, with information that attempted to defame her character. He told others about her and how she rejected him. He had people talk to her, trying to convince her that Brian was a great guy. He sent emails and called her. The more Lisa told Brian to stay away from her, the more unwanted attention he piled on: following her, lurking around the places she would frequent, talking about her to other people, harassing her. Lisa was scared and confused. She spoke to her family and her boyfriend, and they all said the same things – he’s just a weird guy, he’s harmless, just let it go. She was concerned that she provoked Brian’s behavior and analyzed her own behaviors and actions. She was becoming paranoid and afraid for her safety. Lisa eventually moved across the country and Brian found her through the internet. Although Lisa has done her best to block him on social media, she believes that Brian is watching her through online activity to this day.
What Lisa did not realize when all of this unwanted attention came her way was that she is a victim of stalking, and stalking is a crime. There are laws to protect victims of stalking and punish offenders. The United States Department of Justice describes stalking as “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for [their] safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.” With more than six million victims annually in the United States, stalking impacts 1-in-6 women and 1-in-17 men. In Lisa’s case, her stalker is someone she rejected romantically, but according to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC), “most stalkers target people they know. Many stalkers commit this crime against people who they’ve dated/been romantically involved with. Stalkers may also be acquaintances, family members and/or strangers.”
Legally, Lisa and others who experience stalking can take action against their perpetrators. In the State of Texas, stalking is criminalized in Sec. 42.072 of the Texas Penal Code. As Lisa’s story illustrates, the behaviors and actions involved in stalking are numerous and diverse. The statute attempts to account for all manners and means in which stalking is perpetrated. In general, what is required to be proved for criminal prosecution is: actions, directed at a person, that occur more than once, and are a part of a common course of conduct that causes that person to feel threatened, harassed or alarmed as to injury or death to themselves or a member of their family or household or to their property. This offense is a Third Degree Felony which carries a range of punishment from probation or 2-10 years in prison. If the offender has a previous conviction for stalking, then it is a Second-Degree Felony, with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. It is important to understand that the law does not require that any prior or current relationship exists between the offender and victim, although often times that is the case. Also, victims of stalking are entitled to request a Protective Order be placed against the offender, again, regardless of any relationship status that is usually required to qualify for such Orders. The statute of limitations to criminally charge someone with stalking in Texas is three years. This time is calculated beginning from the time the last action or conduct that forms the basis for the charge is committed up until the time that the person is formally charged by a Court (in Texas that means that a Grand Jury has issued an Indictment).
Though the crime of stalking is completed by engaging in a course of conduct over time, the underlying details of events and occurrences remain very important in obtaining a criminal conviction. Documentation of these events and occurrences can prove crucial. This documentation can also take many forms. Some documentation speaks for itself, like text messages or any electronic communication including on social media. But what can be just as effective is strong witness testimony which is most often more reliable when a journal or other written depository is used by the stalking victim to record immediate recollection of events as they occur.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Co-written by Erin Bakker, senior director of legal services and Maria MacMullin, major gifts officer at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support.