Updating Vermont’s Stalking Law

Stalking is a serious problem in Vermont and nationwide. It involves severe intrusions on the victim’s personal privacy and autonomy, causes a long-lasting impact on the victim’s quality of life, and creates risks to the security and safety of the victim and others even in the absence of express threats of physical harm. Stalking conduct often becomes increasingly violent over time and there is a strong connection between stalking and domestic violence and sexual assault.

In Vermont, 3 out of every 4 stalking civil protective order requests are denied, most often due to the inflexible and confusing language in the definition of stalking. The definition law enforcement uses is from a different era.  The modern stalker is usually not “lying in wait.”  Rather, he (or she) is using technology to monitor, observe, and threaten victims.  This year, the legislature modernized this definition and provided further protections to victims.  The updated stalking law includes provisions that mirror those included in a Model Stalking Code from the National Center for Victims of Crime.  It defines stalking as a course of conduct that the person engaging in the conduct knows or should know would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety, the safety of another, or would cause a reasonable person emotional distress.  It defines the course of conduct as engaging in two or more acts where a person follows, monitors, surveils, threatens another person by any direct or indirect action, method, device or means.

The law will change other elements of the crime of stalking, relieving prosecutors from having to prove that there was no legitimate purpose for the alleged stalking behavior. It does not require an offender to make an express or overt threat; he or she need only act in a manner that would cause a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances to feel threatened.  It clarifies that the stalker need not have had the intended to cause the victim’s fear, but that he or she knew or should have known that a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstance would have felt that fear.

The bill would ease the way for individuals to obtain protective orders against stalkers and for law enforcement to prosecute stalkers.  It would improve a victim’s ability to prevent the severe intrusions on their personal privacy and autonomy that stalking causes.

 

Judiciary Committee Update

The Judiciary Committee continues to pave the way for improved highway safety. As to H.571, related to driver’s license suspensions, the committee is nearing consensus on how to address the backlog of tens of thousands of suspended licenses. We are also closing in on deciding how to avoid the future accumulation of licenses that are suspended based on failure to pay or other violations unrelated to traffic safety.

The Committee continues to work on a bill (H.560) related to driving under the influence, seeking how best to bring swift and sure consequences to those who drive impaired. Concurrently, the Committee is formulating solutions to ensure that more drivers who have been charged with DUIs use an ignition interlock device in order to reduce the number of impaired drivers on our roads. H.560 also contains a provision that increases the penalty for negligent operation of a vehicle if that operation results in a fatality or serious bodily injury. Currently, there is no additional penalty when negligent operation has such results.

When the Committee has managed to exit from our state highways, we have addressed other concerns. First, H.749, which should soon be out of committee, would allow individuals who are 16 years old or older to seek a relief from abuse order on his or her own behalf (currently one must be 18 years old or older to seek such relief).

H.818 would update Vermont’s stalking laws. In Vermont, 3 out of every 4 stalking civil protective order requests are denied, most likely due to the inflexibility of and confusion surrounding the definition of stalking. That ossified definition is from a different era. The modern stalker is usually not “lying in wait.” Rather, he (or she) is using different technologies to monitor, observe, and threaten victims. H.818 would modernize what it means to stalk.

The bill changes other elements of the crime of stalking. It relieves prosecutors of having to prove a negative, namely that there was no legitimate purpose for the alleged stalking behavior. It prohibits conduct that causes a reasonable person to fear for the safety of another such as a child, not just fear for his or her own safety. It does not require an offender to make an overt threat; he or she need only act in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened. It clarifies that the stalker need not have had the intent to cause the victim’s fear, but that a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstance would have felt that fear.

The Committee intends to work through certain concerns raised by court representatives related to this bill in order to update the State’s stalking law.