In 1990, California passed the first state criminal law that allowed stalking charges against individuals who engage in stalking behavior. During the following nine years, all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, enacted stalking laws, with New York being the last one in 1999. According to most of the state laws, three elements must be present in order for stalking charges to be levied. There must be a pattern of intentional annoying, frightening, or harassing behavior, such as repetitive phone calls, letters, vandalism, pursuit, or other undesirable conduct. Additionally, there must be believable implicit or explicit intimidation of the victim or her family, and the victim must experience actual fear or distress as a result of the behavior.
According to victim research, approximately two to six million victims experience stalking each year in the United States, the prevalence depending on the definition of stalking. Victims describe many forms of stalking behavior that prompt them to file stalking charges. The most commonly reported stalking behaviors include surveillance, unannounced visits, spying, and unwanted phone calls or text messages. About 66 percent of stalking incidents involves former spouses or individuals with whom the victim has been intimate in the past. Only five percent of stalking cases involves strangers.
Federal stalking charges may arise from interstate or cyber stalking. In 12 states, even initial episodes of stalking warrant felony stalking charges. Thirteen states reserve felony charges for repeat episodes of stalking. In the other 25 states, the charge for stalking may be a misdemeanor or a felony, based on the circumstances of the case.
Critical to an investigation of stalking charges is the understanding that stalking cases are vastly different from other crime cases. Stalking cases stretch out over a long period, requiring a tremendous number of hours. The crime is ongoing, not an isolated event. Important features of a case include psychiatric concerns, motivation for stalking, and the relationship between the victim and the stalker. For example, investigators find that stalkers, who have been in past intimate relationships with the victim, frequently have personality disorders, with motivations such as jealousy, need to control, or revenge.
Investigations of stalking charges require assessments of whether the victims are in danger. Red flags in the stalker’s history include substance abuse, history of violence, tendencies toward rage, and major stressors. Search warrants for the stalker’s home should include journals, photos of the victim, maps or drawings of the victim’s home or workplace, keys to the victim’s home, and surveillance equipment. Personal interviews with the stalker may illicit admissions, but most stalkers minimize their behavior, rationalize it, or deny it altogether.