A bill proposed in the Wisconsin State Legislature on May 23 would broaden the definition of stalking to include contacting the victim via text message and online.
Current stalking law in Wisconsin does not explicitly mention text messaging, although it does forbid contacting the victim by telephone. Text messages can be sent without access to a cell phone through applications such as Skype or WhatsApp.
Assembly Bill 259 would change that by covering communication through email, causing repeated notifications on a victim’s electronic device and consider contact through the internet by messaging, commenting or posting content to be stalking.
Patti Seger has been the executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin for 15 years. Before that, she helped to write Wisconsin’s original stalking law that took effect in 2002.
Technology has evolved since then, she said, and so have attitudes towards stalking behavior.
Research shows stalking causes psychological trauma to the victim, and occurred in 94% of 358 homicides evaluated in a 2019 UK study.
Legally, stalking is established through a two act course of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress or to fear bodily injury or death to themselves or to a member of their family or household, according to Wisconsin Statute.
There is no expiration limit for the time between contacts.
Bill coauthor Senator André Jacque said he had been approached by a Green Bay Alderman, who put him in contact with the mother of a student who had been involved in a teacher soliciting students through text message.
David J. Viste was charged with two counts of stalking in 2018 after sending what was described by police as a thousand unwanted texts, many sexually suggestive, to a student.
Viste pleaded no contest on Dec. 18 to three misdemeanor charges of threatening by sending a computer message. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
While it can’t be proven, Jacque said specific cyberstalking language may have allowed felony charges to stick in the case.
The State Department of Justice and the district attorneys offices of Brown and Outagamie counties provided input, Jacque said.
He thinks the prospects of the bill passing are good.
Bill coauthor Representative Amanda Stuck agrees and stated the bill has a lot of bipartisan support.
First offense stalking is a class I felony in Wisconsin and punishable by fines up to $10,000 and 3 1/2 years imprisonment.
Felony stalking charges are rare in Barron County.
Three felony stalking cases were filed in Barron County in 2018, according to Wisconsin Circuit Court Access. One defendant pleaded guilty to harassment and must pay a $300 forfeiture penalty and court costs.
One stalking charge has been filed in the County in 2019. The case is currently scheduled for an August jury trial.
Barron County District Attorney Brian Wright said while it is technically possible to charge a stalking misdemeanor, if there is a reasonable fear for the safety of the person.
Wright said the cyberstalking language would be a good addition to the statute.
Wright said that in cases with formal court intervention, the number of cases that resulted in bodily harm or death decreased.
Bond conditions containing no contact orders are an effective way to deter future stalking behavior, he said.
The original behavior is typically reported to law enforcement.
Captain Tracy Hom of the Rice Lake Police Department said it seemed the adjustment in language would make it easier to investigate stalking and enforce the law.
Hom said restraining orders typically take care of stalking behavior before it reaches felony charge level.
Victims of stalking behavior in Barron County may find support from Embrace Community Outreach, 715-537-6334.