Protecting the vulnerable by cracking down on cyberstalking (Rep. Loretta Sanchez)

Cyberstalking can take many forms, from sending unsolicited messages over e-mail, to identity theft, to posting information (fictitious or real) online. Cyberstalkers may use the information they collect to further harass their victims via courrier mail, phone calls, and physical appearances at a residence or work place. Cyberstalkers may also use other technologies, such as global positioning systems or hidden cameras, to track their victim’s activities — sometimes across state lines.

Unbelievably, this conduct falls short of the federal definition of stalking, meaning law enforcement can do little to prevent and prosecute acts of electronic harassment. That’s why I introduced the STALKERS Act in Congress, which would give prosecutors the tools they need to prevent stalking in the digital age. This bill would increase the scope of existing laws to cover acts of electronic monitoring, including spyware, bugging, video surveillance and other new technologies as they develop.

The bill would empower law enforcement to prosecute any act of stalking that is “reasonably expected” to cause another person serious emotional distress. Under current laws, victims have to demonstrate a reasonable fear of physical injury before federal statutes can be enforced. Unfortunately, many stalking victims do not recognize significant threats until it is too late for law enforcement to intervene. The STALKERS Act would give authorities the power to prosecute behavior that an impartial, reasonable observer would recognize as stalking.

Finally, the bill would expand the scope of federal stalking laws to give federal law enforcement more authority to arrest and prosecute individuals who stalk. The STALKERS Act increases the punishment for stalking offenses in three special cases: stalking in violation of a protective order, stalking of minors and stalking of the elderly. In all three cases, the maximum available sentence is increased by five years. By giving juries the option to put stalkers in jail for greater lengths of time, we are taking concrete steps to protect America’s most vulnerable citizens.

At its core, stalking is about power and control. Part of the solution must be educating communities about cyberstalking and giving them the tools to protect themselves. But we also have to adapt federal laws to 21st century crimes. By recognizing stalking in all its forms, the STALKERS Act takes concrete steps to empower victims and punish offenders — at zero cost to taxpayers.

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