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Proposed Bill May Culminate in Stalking Crackdown for the Sunshine State

Orlando-area lawmaker David Simmons has introduced a bill in the Florida Senate that, if passed, will make significant modifications to the state's stalking statutes. Specifically, the bill would mean tougher penalties for those convicted of certain stalking charges, and would also expand stalking and cyberstalking definitions to include a broader array of conduct.

While some Floridians believe the bill might help combat domestic violence, there is concern among Florida criminal defense attorneys and other legal experts that it will unnecessarily widen the net for those drawn into the criminal justice system.

The Substance of SB 950: Big Changes to Aggravated Stalking Statute

Senator Simmons' bill, SB 950, is moving swiftly through the Florida legislative process. Leaders in Florida's lawmaking bodies have already voiced support for the new measures, and on January 24, a bill analysis and fiscal impact statement was issued for SB 950.

Yet, caution is warranted for an untested bill that would greatly broaden the scope of Florida's stalking statute. Under current Florida law, a person who "willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person" commits the offense of stalking, which is a first degree misdemeanor. If stalking is combined with a "credible threat," the offense becomes aggravated stalking, a felony in the third degree.

Threats made directly against either the victim or against certain family members of the victim can serve to enhance stalking charges to aggravated stalking charges. One of SB 950's proposed changes is broadening the range of individuals who are considered qualifying family members. But, the major thrust of SB 950's expansiveness is not its redefinition of covered household or family members; it is the relaxed standards for establishing a credible threat.

As it stands, a credible threat is a threat made with the intent to place a person in reasonable fear of death or bodily injury. If SB 950 is passed, the definition of a credible threat will be subtly expanded to include any threat - whether verbal or nonverbal and however delivered, be it through electronic communication or any other method - made with the apparent ability to carry it out that places the person targeted in reasonable fear of his or her safety (or fear for the safety of his or her immediate family or household members).

This definition is a departure from the old view of a credible threat in that it sets a new objective fear standard - it also explicitly includes threats that are not necessarily overt, as well as those made through electronic modes of communication. SB 950 makes it clear that it would not be necessary to prove that the person making the threat had the intent to actually carry it out in order for conduct to be considered aggravated stalking. Furthermore, the threat would no longer have to be against the life of a person or a threat to cause bodily harm; any threat to "safety" would suffice. Ultimately, the official analysis of the bill by the Florida Senate is that SB 950 would make it easier to establish aggravated stalking.

Additional Statutory Updates of SB 950

Beyond redefining "credible threat" and its collateral impacts on aggravated stalking cases, SB 950 would make several other changes to current law. For instance, it would ratchet up penalties for stalking a minor; those convicted after passage of SB 950 could face up to 30 years in prison. And, SB 950 seeks to establish a cause of action for an injunction available to those seeking protection against stalking and cyberstalking. This cause of action would be similar to those currently available for domestic violence, repeat violence, sexual violence and dating violence, except that in order for an injunction against stalking or cyberstalking to be granted, there would be no requirement that physical injury or a threat of death be involved.

Implications of SB 950 for Domestic Violence Cases

Accusations of stalking and cyberstalking can arise in many contexts. One of the most common is when the parties concerned are involved in a domestic dispute.

Often, when a claim of domestic violence is made, officials can quickly turn hostile towards alleged perpetrators. Completely innocuous phone calls, emails or other communications between spouses or partners can easily be misinterpreted as stalking. If SB 950 is passed, it will become even easier for Florida residents struggling with domestic issues to be drawn into additional legal entanglements.

If you have been arrested following a domestic incident, facing issues with an injunction or restraining order, or have any other concerns regarding domestic violence or stalking allegations, contact an experienced Orlando criminal defense law firm today. A well-qualified lawyer can help you protect your rights, and keep you from facing harsh punishment for questionable charges.

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