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Bill targets 'rape by proxy' [Commentary]

Last year, in Prince George's County, more than 50 strangers visited a woman during a two-week period. The uninvited men arrived at all hours, day and night, some trying to force their way into her house. Each showed up expecting to have violent sex with her — and, in some instances, her children. Terrified for the safety of her family, she resorted to sitting up all night with a shotgun barrel trained on her front door. Her four children slept in the living room, too afraid to sleep in their own beds.

All of the unwanted visitors claimed the woman had invited them to fulfill her fantasy or fetish of being sexually abused and raped. They said she had posted ads on web sites and sent messages via social media. In fact, it was the victim's ex-husband who had posted the ads, posing as the victim herself. These bogus solicitations included her address and featured pictures of herself and her children. They made gruesome requests like "Rape Me and My Daughters," and offered her children to be violated for money.

This new trend in "rape by proxy" is as horrific as it is simple. Thanks to the anonymity and wide reach of the Internet, any jealous ex, jilted lover, or jaded stalker can easily recruit an army of proxy rapists to assault their target. Unlike most conspirators, the recruiters and recruits never meet, never exchange anything of value and may never even communicate directly at all.

The victim in Prince George's County had her life completely upended by her ex-husband's malicious solicitations. She was forced to beg website administrators to remove the dozens of postings she could identify and eventually moved out of her home for fear of continued visits. Though her ex-husband was eventually brought to justice, prosecutors were forced to cobble together a lengthy list of charges to accumulate a sentence that would fit this novel crime.

Though it did not make her ordeal any less harrowing, the victim in the Prince George's County case was spared from the worst physical harm. The same cannot be said for the victim of Jebidiah James Stipe. In 2010, he created a fraudulent Craigslist ad that appeared to be from a former girlfriend. It included her Wyoming address and requested that a "real aggressive man with no concern for women" fulfill her "rape fantasy." Ty Oliver McDowell answered the ad, forcing his way into the victim's home and raping her at knifepoint.

Most states do not yet outlaw the online solicitation of assault, and perpetrators have seemingly taken note. In 2012, a man from Twin Falls, Idaho posted advertisements on Craigslist posing as a woman he knew, saying she wanted to be raped. His victim was forced to fend off assailants at gunpoint.

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to stop this burgeoning form of abuse now, before anyone else in Maryland is victimized. Senate Bill 50 (SB50) would prohibit a person from using the "personal identifying information" or identity of an individual without consent to invite, encourage, or solicit another to commit a sexual crime against an individual, imposing a 20-year penalty.

By passing legislation to criminalize these deplorable acts, the General Assembly can give prosecutors the tools they need to bring the perpetrators to justice. In the process, we can deter potential criminals by sending a loud and clear message that these evil acts are a violation of the law and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.

Maryland should be a state where we work to halt the dangerous misuse of technology before tragedy befalls a neighbor, friend, or family member. Information technology may continue to transform our lives for the better, but not if we allow criminals to be our most prolific innovators.

State Sen. Brian Frosh is chairman of Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and a Democratic candidate for Maryland Attorney General. Del. Kathleen Dumais is vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. Both are Montgomery County Democrats. Their emails are brian.frosh@senate.state.md.us and kathleen.dumais@house.state.md.us.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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