Stalking refers to harassing actions by one person which are directed toward another and which result in her feeling unsafe or fearful. In the United States (US), there are both state and federal laws that address this type of behavior. Depending upon the jurisdiction under which the crime is committed, a perpetrator may be liable criminally and civilly.
When compared with many laws, which often stem from legislation that is centuries old, stalking laws are fairly new. In the US, every state and the District of Columbia (DC) has stalking laws, but this was not always the case. Even now, there are many definitions of the crime. One reason it is difficult to consistently define this offense is because it generally consists of a number of actions which may be viewed normal under different circumstances.
The creation of these laws was necessary, however, because it was recognized that more people acted in ways that instill fear in others than was once recognized. The absence of stalking laws meant that law enforcement had little authority to do anything about it. In many cases, stalking begins with actions that only intimidate or scare the victims. If the problem is not addressed, however, stalking can lead to serious incidents, including murder.
Stalking laws address behavior that is direct and indirect, such as making harassing phone calls, following a person from place to place, and leaving unwanted objects for a person to find. Due to the popularity of the Internet and the numerous ways in which it can be used to threaten or intimidate a person, many legislators have found it necessary to enact stalking laws that address behaviors in cyberspace.
One of the biggest differences between stalking laws is how drastic the perpetrator’s actions need to be. In some jurisdictions, the perpetrator must do something that can be considered threatening before he can be charged with a crime. In other states, the determination of whether a crime has been committed can be made based on the victim’s level of fear.
In some places, there are both civil and criminal stalking laws. When criminal charges are brought for stalking, the violator can be incarcerated and may pay fines. Some states, such as California, have stalking laws that give a victim the right to be notified before a person convicted of stalking her is released from jail or prison. Since it has been found that this type of harassment often involves the victim incurring costs, such as moving, missing time from work, or changing telephone numbers, as well as causing psychological damage in addition to any physical or property damage, many laws allow people to sue and receive financial compensation.