Stalking is a pattern of behavior designed to harass and intimidate the victim. It involves repeated following, watching, or harassment rather than one individual act. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one six women and one in 19 men have experienced stalking at some point in their lives. Stalking can be a legitimate problem in violent relationships, but if a current or former partner accuses you of stalking, it can be frustrating and frightening.
What is Domestic Violence?
In Pennsylvania, domestic violence isn't a separate charge from a crime like assault or stalking. But if you are in a “domestic relationship” with the victim of the crime, the police will handle the charge a little differently. Under Pennsylvania law, a domestic relationship includes “family or household members” if:
· You are current or former spouses or lived together as spouses,
· You have a child together,
· You have a current or former intimate or sexual relationship,
· You are a parent and child, or
· You have some other family relationship.
Domestic abuse-related crimes include both misdemeanors and felonies and include crimes like assault, kidnapping, child abuse, false imprisonment, harassment, sexual assault, and stalking:
· Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, or incest with or without a deadly weapon.
· Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
· The infliction of false imprisonment under the Pennsylvania code.
· Physically or sexually abusing minor children.
· Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.
What is Stalking?
Under Pennsylvania law, stalking is a course of conduct or repeated acts or communications demonstrating an intent to place someone else in reasonable fear of bodily injury or to cause substantial emotional distress. See 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709.1. A course of conduct is more than one act but may occur in a short period.
A first offense is considered a first-degree misdemeanor. However, stalking becomes a third-degree felony when:
· It is a second or subsequent offense,
· The accused previously committed a violent offense against the same family member, or
· The victim has a Protection From Abuse Order (PFA) against the accused.
Fortunately, anyone who files a false stalking report may be guilty of either falsely incriminating another or filing fictitious reports under Pennsylvania law. See 18 Pa.C.S. §4906.
Some behaviors that may constitute stalking include:
· Violating a PFA or a protective order from another jurisdiction
· Repeated harassing, threatening, or obscene phone calls
· Burglary of the victim's home, even if the accused has a key
· Following the victim
· Mailing unsolicited cards, letters, gifts, or email to the victim
· Showing up at the victim's place of employment or other frequented venues
· Threats, whether direct or veiled
· Disabling the victim's car or placing a GPS tracking device on the vehicle
· Sending objects to the victim designed to cause fear, even if they seem innocuous taken out of context
· Vandalizing the security of the victim's home, like disabling an alarm or unscrewing lights
· Intercepting or forwarding the victim's mail
· Transferring the victim's phone line, disabling the phone, or planting eavesdropping devices
· Repeatedly making slanderous statements or false reports about the victim to police, their employer, or judicial authorities
· Spying or monitoring the victim's activities
Penalties for Stalking
Under Pennsylvania law, the penalties for a conviction of a first stalking offense, a first-degree misdemeanor, include up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. A second or subsequent offense, a third-degree felony, carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine. A stalking charge is a serious criminal matter whether law enforcement charges you with a first-degree misdemeanor or a third-degree felony. You should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
Under certain circumstances, a stalking charge may be even more severe. These circumstances include, for example, if:
· The victim is a minor, and you are an adult;
· The victim is elderly;
· You threatened the victim with physical injury or death;
· You also physically harmed the victim;
· You violated a PFA or restraining order; or
· You had a deadly weapon in your possession at the time of the incident.
Moreover, if you and the victim are in a “domestic relationship,” stalking can be considered a domestic violence-related crime. If the stalking is related to domestic abuse, the victim may seek a Protection From Abuse Order from the court. The police may also arrest you without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that stalking occurred.
Defenses to Stalking
1. The prosecution failed to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
At trial, prosecutors must prove that you violated each element of the stalking crime beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, say that the prosecutor is trying to prove that you were driving by the victim's workplace every day, but it is just as likely that you were traveling to the gym near the victim's office. In this situation, the prosecutor may not be able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Defending against each element of a stalking charge requires an attorney with extensive experience in criminal defense and strict attention to detail.
2. The victim lied or accidentally identified the wrong person.
In some stalking cases, the victim accidentally or intentionally identifies the wrong person. Accusations of stalking related to domestic violence often occur during a break-up, divorce, remarriage of one partner, or a contentious custody dispute. A skilled domestic violence and criminal defense attorney can help you mount a vigorous defense if the victim mistakenly or vindictively identified the wrong person.
If someone accuses you of stalking, there are some things you should not do:
· Do not try to contact or talk to the victim directly or through another person.
· Do not talk to the police without an attorney present.
· Do not give any evidence you may have, like communications from the victim, texts or messages, phone call logs, or voicemails without first consulting an attorney.
Even if you think the evidence will exonerate you, it's best to first speak to a criminal defense attorney. If arrested and released on bond, it is also crucial that you follow all of the conditions of your release.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has many years of experience representing people in Pennsylvania accused of domestic violence-related crimes like stalking and harassment. If someone has accused you of stalking, call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or contact us online.