House stiffens anti-stalking law

Chris Vetter

and Andrew Tellijohn

Minnesota legislators cast votes Thursday to clamp down on stalkers in the state.
The first bill of the 1997 session passed through the House of Representatives with an overwhelming 124-to-three vote, and is intended to clarify current Minnesota anti-stalking laws. But members of the University Police Department say they don’t believe the new legislation will make it easier to convict suspected stalkers.
Rep. Mary Jo McGuire, DFL-Falcon Heights, who co-sponsored the legislation, said she was not surprised by the wide margin of victory for the bill.
“I had expected near unanimity,” McGuire said. “A lot of people have worked together on this bill. Everyone wanted us to have strong anti-stalking legislation, and I think we created one.”
The legislation would no longer require prosecutors to prove criminal intent on behalf of the defendants in stalking cases. Rather, they would only have to prove that the defendant is involved in repeated harassing actions, such as telephone calls or letters.
“It is not necessary to go into the head of the defendant,” McGuire said. “The prosecutors just need to prove (the defendant) committed the act.”
The law relies on a “reasonable person standard,” which is commonly used in sexual harassment laws. The reasonable person standard holds that a person “knows or should know” that the action the person is involved in will be perceived negatively by another person.
The bill also redefines the word “harass” to mean any action that causes a victim to feel either “frightened” or “threatened.”
A similar bill will be heard by the Senate Crime Prevention Committee on Monday. The legislation is expected to pass the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Arne Carlson.
The Legislature passed anti-stalking legislation in 1993. However, this past September, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted the 1993 law to mean that prosecutors had to prove a defendant had criminal intent when stalking a victim.
McGuire said this unexpected interpretation made the new law necessary to help the Supreme Court understand the intent of the original 1993 legislation.
“This bill clarifies and strengthens our current law,” McGuire said.
Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, said the new bill does not violate any Constitutional rights. “The court said we had to clarify the law,” Skoglund said. “And that is what we’ve done.”
In spite of the legislation, members of the University Police Department said that if the bill becomes law, it won’t affect their work.
Detective Larry Anderson said that in the last two or three years, he doesn’t remember seeing any cases filed as stalkings.
Sgt. Joe May said this is partly because of the ineffectiveness of the current law.
“It doesn’t really matter to me, because it’s a non-use,” he said. “We have other ways of handling it that are effective.”
Those other methods include obtaining restraining orders against parties engaged in threatening activity, and charging suspects with different crimes, such as terroristic threats or fifth-degree assault, May said.