Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Legal Classifications

Though the behaviour widely identified as stalking has existed for centuries, the legal system has only codified its presence in the statutes in recent decades. As a result, cyberstalking could truly be identified as a crime of the nineties owing to its reliance on computer and communications technology which have only reached maturity in the past decade.

It is difficult to find literature relating specifically to cyberstalking, and according to Eoghan Casey (1999), a computer crimes expert, incidences involving a purely electronic medium are rare. The on-line behaviour we are now witnessing is most accurately described as an extension of 'traditional' stalking that utilises a high-tech modus operandi (method of operation). Owing to this, one should consult the general literature relating to stalking for information on this adaptation of the criminal act.

In legal terms, the manifestation of this misconduct is most likely to be charged as per the statutes in place in the respective jurisdictions. In the United States, California was the first state to adopt stalking laws, most often identified as a result of the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by Robert Bardo in 1989. Legislation was subsequently passed in 1990, and the nation's first anti-stalking law was passed (Zona, Palarea & Lane, 1998; Coleman, 1997; National Victim Centre, 1998b). New York enacted Penal Code 240.25 in 1992, which was amended in 1994 (National Victim Centre, 1998a).

Australian states to enact stalking legislation around the same time include Queensland with Section 359A of the Criminal Code prohibiting Unlawful Stalking in 1993. Victoria however, was the first Australian state to judiciously guard against this conduct in 1958, with Section 21A of the Crimes Act in 1958 (Victims of Crime, 1998).

Irrespective of the jurisdiction, there are several key criteria for conduct to be considered stalking. Many states include a provision whereby the behaviour must occur on two or more occasions before the criteria are satisfied. In other states, a single occurrence is sufficient (Queensland is one such state where the frequency of conduct has since been amended). Several US states (Delaware, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma ) allow for the consideration of harsher penalties where repeat offences relate specifically to prior incidences of stalking (Cullen-Anderson, 1993).

Given the ability of individuals to 'mask' their identity when using the Internet, linking the harassment to one particular individual may prove difficult, providing law enforcement with a challenge if prosecution should become an option. Programs that mask ones IP (Internet Protocol) address and anonymous remailers are merely two examples that hinder the identification of the digital location from which communications originate. This is important when considering that many statutes require that the threat be real. Lisa Rosier, of the Queensland Police Service who was trained by the Los Angeles Police Department states: "If a person is making these threats from the US, then there is little chance that the threat can be carried out" (The Australian, 1998). Rosier also points out that the psychological torment may still be very real, even in the absence of a distinct physical threat. One of the things that investigators may have in their favour is that such 'pure' cyberstalking, that which occurs entirely on the Internet, is rare (Casey, 1999) and as such will cross the virtual and extend into the physical.

There is a definite gap between the legal statutes and the electronic world. Of the US states that have anti-stalking laws, only seven contain language that deal with stalking by computer (Jenson, 1996; Meloy, 1998). Examples of the differences in behaviour between the physical and virtual realm include hand delivering a letter (be it threat or otherwise) and e-mailing it to the victim. Other on-line examples may be e-mail bombs, threatening, degrading or demeaning communications, and assuming your on-line persona in places you frequent, such as chat rooms, for the purpose of posting personal details about you or your life. One such case in which the latter was a problem will be covered in the coming sections.

While it is important to consider legal issues relating to stalking, they often fail to take into account the behavioural diversity evidenced in the act. For the investigator or concerned net-user, information relating to the behaviour often exhibited by a stalker will be important, as this may provide insight into possible motivations behind the offender. The next section will provide such explanations of stalking, from a motivational point of view, in the form of stalking typologies. A typology is broadly defined as the clustering together of individuals based upon shared characteristics. A summary shall also cover topical issues relating to the etiology, or causes of stalking.