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Legal Matters: Determining whether actions constitute stalking

How do you know when you are the victim of a stalker? That sounds like a dumb question, after high profile situations such as Ben Affleck's revelation of a stalker several years ago and, more recently, David Geffen's report that he was being stalked by an ex-boyfriend.

It is not a dumb question, because you can be the victim of actions that frighten you, but do not meet the legal definition of stalking.

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Women are overwhelmingly more likely to be stalked than men. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, 1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men will be stalked at some point in their lives. Seventy-seven percent of female victims and 64 percent of male victims know their stalkers.

Maryland law defines stalking as "a malicious course of conduct" that includes approaching or pursuing another person where the stalker intends or knows or reasonably should know that his conduct would place his victim in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury, assault, rape or sexual offense, false imprisonment or death. An attempt to frighten the victim by targeting a third person also meets the legal definition of stalking.

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To figure out whether someone who believes she is the target of a stalker has a case, we have to do what lawyers do: Take the statute apart and see if the facts in her situation fit the legal definition.

Victim A's situation: She and her boyfriend quarrel, boyfriend comes to her house and demands the return of all items he left there. He stomps out after warning her that he is not finished with her.

Victim A, upset, drives to a nearby county park and goes for a walk to think out what to do. Later that day, boyfriend calls and asks, "Did you enjoy your walk?"

Is he stalking her? She had not told him where she was going, so he probably followed her. His call shows an intent to frighten. So far, he has pursued her with conduct that he knows or should know would reasonably cause her to fear bodily injury or possibly assault. The situation fits part of the definition of stalking.

But the statute also says stalking is "a malicious course of conduct." A "course of conduct" under federal law is "a pattern of conduct composed of two or more acts, evidencing a continuity of purpose."

Boyfriend is not stalking her — yet. If he continues tracking her whereabouts and attempting to frighten her, his actions may meet the legal definition of stalking. Meanwhile, she may check out whether he could be guilty of harassment, which means following her in public or maliciously engaging in conduct that alarms or seriously annoys her.

Victim A can tell boyfriend to stop and then have no further contact with him. She can contact police immediately to report all incidents of his stalking or harassment.

If boyfriend is found guilty of stalking, he faces a possible five years in jail, a fine up to $5,000 or both. Harassment could get him 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine for the first offense.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or denglelaw@gmail.com. Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.

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