ONE evening while on a date, Sandra noticed that a man she knew was following her.
Angry at seeing her out with another man, the stalking man later started harassing her. He followed her, made death threats, and even broke into her home.
Sandra (not her real name) talked to the police and learned the man had previously been tried for rape and kidnapping, and acquitted. The harassment got so bad that she left the area.
"What I had to do was pull up stakes one weekend and sort of rush out of town," she says. "And I just moved 100 miles away into a high-security building."
That was seven years ago, but Sandra is still afraid the stalking man will find her.
The stalking problem is gaining increasing attention. In response to a growing awareness of domestic abuse as a serious crime, many states have passed so-called antistalking laws to protect victims from harassment.
At least 20 states have passed antistalking laws, while at least a dozen other states have introduced stalking measures this legislative session, according to Donna Hunzeker, criminal justice specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws define stalking as repeated following or harassing of another person. Most laws require that a "credible threat" of violence be made against the victim, Ms. Hunzeker says.
According to Joan Zorza, senior attorney for the National Battered Women's Law Project in New York, the vast majority of domestic violence incidents occur after a couple separates. Protection inadequate
Ms. Zorza says restraining orders don't always provide enough protection for women victims from their abusive husbands or boyfriends. Thus, some abusers begin "stalking" their victims, she says.
"Many of these guys know what the definition of domestic violence is and officially avoid it," Zorza says.
"Nevertheless, they are forever following their girlfriends or wives. They block her entrance way to the door, if she wants to leave her home.
"They follow her around. They call her repeatedly. And the stalking law basically makes this kind of harassment a crime."
California passed the first antistalking law in 1990. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld signed an antistalking law last month after a Lawrence, Mass., woman was killed by her boyfriend after he had repeatedly threatened her. Under the new Bay State law, stalkers may face up to five years in prison and $1,000 in fines.
Governor Weld has also introduced a series of victims' protection measures in response to a wave of recent homicides. Nineteen women and children domestic-abuse victims have been murdered so far this year, at a rate of one homicide every eight days, says Ginny Buckingham, spokeswoman for Governor Weld. In half of those cases, a protective order was in effect.
Two women have been killed since the stalking law took effect three weeks ago, according to Ms. Buckingham.
An antistalking bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature early this year after a woman was killed by a male stalker in Philadelphia. The woman had done everything she could, including filing a protective order and alerting police.
"She was abused for months, harassed for weeks, stalked for days," says Nancy Durborow, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "She did everything she should have done, and the system failed her." Cases categorized
Alana Bowman, deputy city attorney for Los Angeles and supervisor of the city's domestic violence unit, says most stalking cases break down into three categories: domestic violence, work-place harassment, or stalking of a famous person such as a movie star.
"We're able to intervene in a way that we can mandate a practical response, including jail and fines as well as probation, that would include mandatory counseling," Ms. Bowman says.
Some observers are concerned about these new laws. Loren Siegel, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union, says they could be overly broad. For example, he says, such a law could restrict an investigative reporter's attempts to get an interview with a public figure.
"These stalking laws are drafted very carefully," says Ms. Siegel.
"But I think it remains to be seen whether they are going to be enforced with scrupulous attention to the Constitution," she says.