January is Stalking Awareness Month

January is Stalking Awareness Month. It is a designated time when advocates and survivors of abuse raise a call to action for communities and institutions to improve responses to stalking. A primary and fundamental way to do that is by first simply recognizing stalking as a serious crime.

In general, stalking is a pattern of behavior that causes a reasonable person to feel afraid or acutely distressed. In Pennsylvania, the criminal offense of stalking is defined as “a course of conduct” or repeat acts or communications directed at another person in such a way that indicates the offender intends to (a) place the person in “reasonable fear of bodily injury” or (b) intends to cause the person “substantial emotional distress,” or (c) outright communicates their unlawful intention(s). See 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709.1(a). The statute even states that unlawfully following a person can be considered stalking.

For a first offense, stalking is treated as a first-degree misdemeanor – the highest misdemeanor. For subsequent offenses, or in cases where the offender has already been convicted of a crime of interpersonal violence against the same person, stalking is treated as a felony of the third degree. Therefore, if convicted, an offender can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

Stalking is also acknowledged as a form of abuse under Pennsylvania’s Protection From Abuse Act. 23 Pa.C.S. § 6102 et. al. In fact, most Final Orders for Protection From Abuse explicitly prohibit the defendant from stalking the person protected by the Order.

Despite these serious penalties, stalking is still often underappreciated as a significant type of interpersonal violence. Because the circumstances and behaviors that underly stalking are numerous, broad, and amplified by digital technology, it can be very difficult to pinpoint when it is happening. In fact, according to a 2020 Report published by the Rutgers University Center on Violence Against Women and Children, about 4 percent of women and 2 percent of men are stalked annually in the United States. From that population, it is estimated that only about a third to half of victims ever actually contact the police about the stalking. Underreporting is problematic because stalking is particularly dangerous in that it often quickly and unexpectedly escalates to other forms of abuse.

So - for example - when do unwanted “romantic” gestures go from persistent annoyances to potentially harmful, criminal acts? If you are asking yourself this question, please consider contacting us to discuss ways to stay safe, including options for protection such as filing a Petition for Protection From Abuse. To learn more about PFA’s, click here. To speak to a paralegal, call our Family Law Unit Hotline. The hotline is open Monday through Thursday from 9:30AM to 12:00PM, or you can also apply for assistance online.