June 11, 2012 10:02:48 AM
Stalking laws have been on the books in the United States since the early 1990's, and in 2003, following suite with a number of other states, Mississippi enacted a felony cyberstalking statute to help fight digital victimization. Even so, only a relative few cases are prosecuted.
Laura Cummings, a legislative fellow from Connecticut, was asked to gather data on the enforcement of cyberstalking laws in several states, including Mississippi. She reported Mississippi did not collect cyberstalking data, but she was provided with issues Attorney General Jim Hood said he has had with the law. The report stated that Hood's office is reluctant to charge offenders because of the number of elements that must be proven, and the difficulty in proving those elements, citing the need to show knowledge and intent as the most difficult aspects to establish.
Starkville Police Department Detective Kenny Watkins said he has been receiving around three or four reports every month since January, but noted that very few were prosecuted, mentioning many of the same reasons Hood did in Cummings' report.
Cyberstalking is defined under section 97-3-107 of the Mississippi Code. Though the wording is precise, Watkins said the offense is basically constituted by two actions - threat of serious bodily harm and repeated communication. He said this includes the use of Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text messaging and all other forms of electronic communication.
When there is enough for a conviction, first time offenders are subject to a maximum of two years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Second time offenders, offenders whose charges are deemed malicious enough and offenders who are violating a court order can be sentenced up to five years and forced to pay up $10,000.
Watkins said saving all communication from the suspect and reporting the unwanted communication as quickly as possible is key in pursuing cyberstalking charges.
"Document everything," he said. "If you are dealing with texts, a lot of phones allow you to take a screen shot. If it's emails, print and save them, and do the same thing with sites like Facebook. Record all the dates and times. You can bring this to the department and that evidence can be everything they need to start pursuing it."
The SPD deals mostly with reports concerning young adults from about 18 to 24, but Watkins noted that there is no stereotypical offender, because usually the stalking begins as a result of difficult situations between two people who know each other, which crosses age variations.
"I would say 75 to 80 percent of the time it will be someone you know. You are looking at former disgruntled boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, people going through divorces and so you get some older people with that kind of thing," he said. "That is why the age range is kind of hard to pin point, because it really depends on the circumstances. Nearly everyone had access to a computer or a cell phone and that's really all you need to commit this crime."
The other 15 to 20 percent of the time the offender is a total stranger, and Watkins said combating these types of stalkers can actually be easier, especially with the customizable restrictions many forms of electronic communication allow.
"You don't ever want to post any personal contact info online if you can help it. This can leave you very vulnerable," he said. "Generally most email servers allow you to block unwanted email addresses, and Facebook and Twitter both have similar functions. (Some) cell phone companies will allow you to block numbers as well. Those are some of the best ways to deter it."
Because of the prevalence of electronic communication, especially among the youth, Watkins said it is possible for someone to commit this crime without being aware of it. He said people can get angry and make idle threats online or through texts, never planning on going through with it, but if the person being threatened reports the matter, law enforcement has no choice but to investigate.
"Once they make that threat they are in violation of the law," he said. "Anytime you threaten someone's life or threaten to do bodily harm, you got to know you are committing a crime or at least doing wrong. They just may not know the extent of what they are doing or how serious it is."
Watson stressed how important it is for all victims to talk to someone about what is going on.
"No matter age, if you are a victim of it, let someone know," he said. "It doesn't have to be law enforcement it could be a friend or family member, but you want people to know In case something does happen."
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