Change to stalking laws reflects updates in technology

By Sarah Pridgeon, Sundance Times Via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 5/24/22

In a world where technology changes every day, it’s more important than ever that the rulebook we’re expected to play by gets the regular updates it needs to keep up. 

Sometimes a …

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Change to stalking laws reflects updates in technology

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In a world where technology changes every day, it’s more important than ever that the rulebook we’re expected to play by gets the regular updates it needs to keep up. 

Sometimes a little tweak can make the world of difference to a victim, as will undoubtedly be the case with a new law spearheaded by Sandy Stevens, Director of Crook County Family Violence and Sexual Assault Services (CCFV), and Upton Chief of Police Susan Bridge. 

Senate File 100 passed through the Legislature earlier this year and will come into effect on July 1, changing the language of Wyoming’s stalking statute. The pattern of behavior that can be used to identify stalking can now include the use of electronic tracking devices. 

Stevens’ involvement began with a phone call from Bridge in the middle of January. 

“She had a victim who could not figure out how her offender was able to find her all the time. They looked and looked and looked and finally found these AirTags that had been placed on her vehicle,” she says. “An AirTag is the same size as a quarter and is normally placed on your phone so you are able to locate it if it gets lost, or any other valuables. He placed it in her car, so we were able to finally figure out the mystery of how this person was able to locate her.” 

Small and easily affordable, GPS trackers like AirTags can be a discreet way to keep tabs on people without their knowledge. From apps on a victim’s phone to instant messaging and stealing passwords, these days it’s not difficult for a stalker to find out whatever he or she wants to know about another person; GPS trackers have added another tool to the stalking toolkit. 

“Our offenders are getting really creative in the ways they are tracking their victims down and it’s scary to know that someone is tracking your every movement and you can’t figure out how in the heck they are able to locate you,” Stevens said. 

The question that Bridge had for Stevens was this: How could she charge this person, when what he did was not against Wyoming law? 

State statute defines stalking as harassment involving a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time “evidencing a continuity of purpose.” 

This conduct can include verbal or written threats, lewd or obscene statements or images, vandalism or non-consensual physical contact. To qualify as harassment, the statute says it should be directed at a specific person and that the offender “knew or should have known would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress” or fear for their own or someone else’s safety. 

The types of communication outlined in the statute include verbal, electronic, mechanical, telegraphic, telephonic or written. Wyoming law also specifies that following a person may qualify as harassment, as may placing a person under surveillance by being physically present at his or her location. 

What the law does not include, however, is tracking someone via GPS. 

“We didn’t have anything that stated ‘electronic, digital or global positioning’,” Stevens said, and that can be a form of harassment too, “Especially if the other person has no idea that you’ve placed this global positioning device on their phone, car, child’s stuffed animal, purse, backpack and so on. These AirTags are perfect for offenders to be able to gain access to their victims.” 

Because GPS trackers didn’t really fit into the statute, even in the category that’s meant for “other” types of behavior, it was difficult to know how law enforcement should handle them. 

“How do you charge that, when there’s no state statute? Law enforcement was running into a roadblock,” she said. 

Stevens recognized this immediately as an important change to the law, especially with domestic violence continuing to rise in the wake of the pandemic. 

Stalking itself fluctuates from year to year in Crook County, from somewhere around three to upwards of 10 cases, Stevens said, and does seem to be showing an upward trend. 

Stalking can affect anyone, regardless of factors such as gender and age. 

However, said Stevens, she doesn’t usually see the type of stalking where the victims have no idea who is following them or why. Those do happen, she says, but Crook County hasn’t seen a report of a stranger stalking someone in four or five years. 

Instead, she said, she most often sees it happen after a break-up. 

“People are often stalked when they break up with their partner,” she says. “People ask, why doesn’t the victim just leave? Well, they do leave, and then their partner follows them. The most dangerous time for domestic homicide is [also] after a break-up.” 

Stevens knew that a change to the law could only benefit her clients. 

But with only a few weeks until the legislative session began, it was going to be tough to get a bill together in time. Stevens got hold of Tara Muir, policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to see if it might be possible to find a sponsor. It was. Sen. Bill Landen of Riverton agreed to take up the cause. 

Taylor Courtney of the Natrona County Sheriff’s Department also came on board to share his experience of a case involving GPS trackers. 

“This victim was being traumatized by this AirTag, but he couldn’t give it to the county attorney to prosecute,” she said. 

The bill passed through the House and Senate with little difficulty. 

Statutes regarding stalking will now include language that specifies harassment can include the use of an electronic, digital or GPS device that places people under surveillance or watches their internet activity without authorization. 

“It’s a huge win for victims,” Stevens said. “When we think about our stalking orders of protection – or even our family violence orders of protection – they are a living, breathing document that always needs to be revised.”

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