Stalkerazzi: An Overview of California's New Legislation

A couple of weeks ago in her second such incident, actress Lindsay Lohan was injured when her Mercedes crashed into another car after allegedly being chased by so-called "stalkerazzi." Actresses Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson have had similar brushes.

A few years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger was reportedly run off the road while his two children were with him. In 1998, he testified against two overly aggressive photographers who were eventually convicted for an incident involving him and his wife, and was also outspoken in favor of a proposed buffer zone for celebrities.

Stalkerazzi laws

But now that he is the governor of California, he has taken even more action to protect celebrities from unwanted tails. In October, Governor Schwarzenegger answered a call from the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) and signed a bill to deter stalkerazzi. This stalkerazzi legislation provides up to three times the amount of general damages for the victims of assaults committed while trying to photograph or record someone. The bill also prohibits the perpetrator from profiting from any photo or recording taken. Moreover, those who direct, induce, or solicits another to engage in such behavior can also be held liable.

Before this most recent attempt to hit stalkerazzi in the pockets, California passed special stalkerazzi legislation in 1998 to protect celebrities' privacy. The law, which, like the new bill, allows lawsuits for up to three times the amount of general damages and forfeiture of any proceeds, prohibits the filming or recording of celebrities and crime victims "engaging in a personal or family activity in circumstances where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Stalking generally

But what recourse do you, as a non-celebrity, have if someone just won't leave you alone? And what exactly is stalking anyway?

The definition of stalking varies by state, but a fact sheet from the Stalking Resource Center defines it as "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear."

Stalking is a crime in all states and the District of Columbia, and also under federal law. The federal government has further acknowledged the dangers of stalking in requiring the United States Attorney General to compile data regarding stalking as part of the National Incident-Based Reporting System.

How did all this legislation come about?

Partly because of its star-laden population, California has been the leader in anti-stalking legislation. The murders of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, killed by a fan who had stalked her, and of five other Orange County women who had been stalked by former partners sparked the nation's first anti-stalking law in 1990.

This statute filled a gap left open by existing laws; that is, before 1990, law enforcement officials couldn't do much to stop a stalking suspect until he or she had committed an act of violence against the victim. Tragically, however, a stalker's first act of violence often ends in serious bodily harm or even the death of the victim.

In California, a stalker is defined as "anyone who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or willfully and maliciously harasses another person and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family."

Stalking is punishable by up to a year's imprisonment, a $1000 fine, or both. If a restraining order or injunction is violated in the process, the prison sentence can be upped to 2 to 4 years. Someone convicted under this law may have to register as a sex offender with local authorities, and may also have to undergo counseling.

Cyberstalking

California, along with a handful of other states, has explicitly expanded the definition of threat to include not only those made verbally or written, but also electronically, thereby including "cyberstalking" within the law's coverage.

Cyberstalking, or using the Internet to stalk, is a growing problem as use of the World Wide Web expands, leading former Vice President Al Gore to opine, as he asked the United States Attorney General to study this problem in 1999, that stalking online "can be as frightening and as real as being followed and watched in your neighborhood or in your home."

Other California criminal statutes, including "Punishment for Threats," "Obscene, Threatening or Annoying Telephone Calls," may also be applied to stalkers.

Further showing its commitment to fighting the crime of stalking, California instituted an instruction course for training parole officers in the appropriate protocol for interacting with both stalking parolees and victims. Moreover, a stalking victim or family member may request notification from the California Department of Corrections 15 days before a convicted stalker is released in prison.

In addition to Penal Code provisions, California also has various anti-stalking civil statutes, which are now copied in many other states. Lawmakers have created the tort of stalking, meaning that victims may sue their stalkers for damages. Victims may also request restraining orders and injunctions against stalkers, and also ask that the California Department of Motor Vehicles not release information regarding auto registration and license records to anyone other than court and law enforcement officials, governmental agencies, or specific financial institutions, insurers, or attorneys.

Also, if the stalking had occurred at a workplace, even the employer can request a restraining order or injunction on behalf of the employee.

Is there really a need for all these laws?

Absolutely. Stalking is a serious problem in the United States. A 1998 U.S. Department of Justice survey reported that over a million women and nearly 400,000 men are stalked every year. One in 12 women and one in 45 men will be stalked at some point in their lifetime.

The psychological effect of stalking on victims is measurable, as 30% of female victims and 20% of male victims sought counseling. Moreover, a Dutch study found that victims' scores for anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction, and severe depressions were closer to those of psychiatric outpatients than those of the general population.

If you think are being stalked, keep a record of any stalking incidents, and consider making a police report or getting a restraining order if you have been physically threatened.

Other than taking advantage of the anti-stalking provisions in your state, there are several things you can do if you feel you are the target of a stalker; most precautions involve keeping your personal information as private as possible, for example, using a private post office box, getting an unpublished and unlisted phone number, letting your friends and family know that your information is to be kept in confidence.

Above all, however, know that any instance of stalking should be taken seriously, and if you feel you are the victim of stalking, you should contact your local authorities and/or a local attorney to determine the best way to protect yourself.