The recent modification of our laws by the Maryland General Assembly demonstrates the strong connection between criminal and civil law with regard to interpersonal and family relationships. In 2016 General Assembly passed legislation that redefines the crime of stalking. Stalking has been defined as “malicious course of conduct that includes approaching or pursuing another, where the person intends to place–or knows or reasonably should have known the conduct would place– another in reasonable fear of: serious bodily injury; an assault in any degree; rape or sexual offense or attempted rape or sexual offense; false imprisonment; or death.” With the passage of this new legislation, effective October 1, our Code now includes language that the person charged with stalking “intends to cause or knows or reasonably should have known that the conduct would cause serious emotional distress.”
What are the kinds of anti-social behaviors experienced by victims of stalking? The Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, prepared a special report which identified and measured seven stalking behaviors that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. These behaviors include:
- Making unwanted phone calls;
- Sending unsolicited or unwanted letters, e-mails, messages or texts;
- Following or spying on the victim;
- Showing up at places without a legitimate reason;
- Waiting at places for the victim;
- Leaving unwanted items, presents, or flowers;
- Posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth.
While these acts individually may not be criminal, collectively and repetitively these behaviors may cause a victim to fear for his or her safety or for the safety of a family member. These acts are further intensified in our age of instant communication through the internet. These unwanted behaviors create fear, uncertainty, and ultimately chaos in the lives of those who are forced to re-organize their time and routines to protect themselves and their family members from a person whose behavior resembles the hunter tracking its prey.
While we will likely see new criminal prosecutions involving stalking to address the behaviors encompassed in this new definition, the change in the law may have its greatest impact in the civil arena. In our domestic violence protective order statute and peace order statute, stalking is one form of abuse. Those who seek protective or peace orders can petition the court for relief from stalking. While the consequence to those found to be stalking under the civil protective and peace order statutes will not result in immediate incarceration, with the entry of a protective or peace order, continuing such tactics puts stalkers on notice that their unacceptable behaviors must stop or they will face arrest and criminal prosecution for failing to obey these court orders.