States Crack Down on `Stalking'
High-profile cases, including a shooting at a California post office, lead to new laws
LOS ANGELES — IN Washington, D.C., the wife of a United States senator held a congressional committee spellbound in March with a harrowing tale of being stalked by a man for nine years.
In New York, a tennis coach who had stalked a former pupil killed himself last month after police foiled his attempt to kidnap the girl.
In Dana Point, Calif., a former postal worker who authorities say had been obsessed with a female letter carrier is accused of murder in the wake of a recent shooting spree.
Stalking, virtually unrecognized by the law three years ago, is rapidly rising as a significant social problem in America.
Spurred by a growing number of cases that too often end in violence, politicians are continuing to pass new laws, reassess existing ones, and search for other ways to curb the problem.
But questions about the constitutionality of the statutes remain, and advocacy groups say it will take more than penal codes to cope with a problem so complex and pervasive.
"Laws that have been passed are taking some people off the streets," says Matthew Reed of the nonprofit National Victim Center in Fort Worth, Texas. "But we haven't solved the problem by passing laws."
By one estimate, 200,000 people in the US are being stalked by someone. The city attorney's office in celebrity-heavy Los Angeles, considered the stalking capital of the world, alone handles some 500 cases a year.
Victims run the gamut: lovers, ex-lovers, coworkers, stars, public officials. Women are almost always the target.
Forty states have passed antistalking laws since California, acting in the wake of actress Rebecca Schaeffer's death, enacted the first statute in 1990. Several others may still act on legislation this year.
In Congress, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California is proposing that it be a federal crime - punishable by up to 10 years in prison - anytime a stalker crosses state lines or uses the mail or telephone to deliver a threat. The measure is co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Krueger (D) of Texas, whose wife, Kathleen, was victimized by a stalker - receiving on some days as many as 120 harassing phone calls.
The drive comes as the National Institute of Justice, under legislation passed last year, is trying to fashion for states a model antistalking statute that will withstand court challenges.
While many prosecutors and advocacy groups welcome the laws, some worry they don't go far enough. Here in California, for instance, an effort is under way to broaden the state's pioneering statute.
The law requires that a "credible threat" be made before it is considered stalking. By the time that standard is met, critics say, it is often too late for authorities to act. They want to broaden the definition to include a "threat implied by conduct" or a "pattern of conduct."
"We are trying to give police the means to intervene in the early stages - before there is a dead body," says Rhonda Saunders, a deputy Los Angeles district attorney, whose office backs the changes. "The bottom line is we are trying to save lives - and the victim's sanity."
In the recent postal shooting case, Mark Richard Hilbun, the man arrested in the incident, had been stalking postal employee Kim Springer for more than a year, authorities say. He was fired from his job in December in part because of these actions.
But he apparently didn't threaten her until just a few days before the alleged rampage. He has been charged with killing his mother and a postal worker and wounding seven others.
Ms. Saunders cites two cases she has been involved with in which stalkers warned their victims: You won't meet with me, but we will be in heaven together soon.
Under current law, she says, that is too ambiguous to be considered a threat.
The proposed legislation would also stiffen penalties for first-time and repeat offenders and provide therapy for those convicted of stalking.
The changes would make California's law among the toughest in the nation - perhaps too tough for some. The American Civil Liberties Union, among others, is monitoring the bill.
Most antistalking laws have not been tested yet in court. Florida's statute was upheld by one judge in February and struck down by another in March.
"The real action is going to be in the courts," says Donna Hunzeker, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There has been concern raised that some of the laws are too broad and too vague."
Advocacy groups say police and prosecutors need to be more sensitive to the problem and better trained. Judges need to be more willing to give out restraining orders. Activists want better counseling for convicted stalkers, since many take up where they left off when they get out of jail.
"We need to do more rehabilitation," Mr. Reed says. "Stalking by nature is repetitive."