Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Cynthia Lifson, left, legislative counsel for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, and Dorothy Lennig, director of the House of Ruth Domestic Violence Legal Clinic. (Maximilian Franz)

Md. bills to broaden stalking statute receive support

Cross-filed legislation would include psychological abuse, emotional distress

Causing serious emotional distress, even without an overt threat of physical harm, may soon be categorized as stalking under Maryland law if cross-filed bills continue to receive support in the General Assembly.

Advocates hope Senate Bill 278 and House Bill 155 will allow courts to address the seriousness of unwanted behaviors that can throw the victim’s world into chaos but which are not accompanied by violence or threats.

“What we’re really talking about is a persistent course of conduct that is really unwelcome and becomes very upsetting,” said Cynthia Lifson, legislative counsel for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

Unwanted gifts, phone calls and emails can cause a victim to be fearful, but Maryland’s current stalking statute only criminalizes conduct that places someone in reasonable fear of physical harm.

Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery and one of the bills’ sponsors, said current law does not include people who experience psychological abuse that can manifest itself physically, according to studies about the effects of prolonged stress.

“It really is just as dangerous,” she said.

House Bill 155 received a favorable committee report and passed the House with only one dissenting vote earlier this session. The Senate version passed without opposition and has a hearing Wednesday afternoon in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

“Hopefully, it will move forward, because it will help a lot of people,” Lee said.

Both bills were amended in committee to maintain the requirement that the conduct in question be done with malice, which was removed in the original bill drafts.

“They wanted to ensure that there was some kind of malice involved in the stalking,” Lee said. “It was a compromise.”

Lifson said while advocates would prefer the bill to have emerged from committees untouched, they are pleased that the “enormous change” at the heart of the legislation was accepted.

“It’s very rare to get everything one requests,” she said.

A prosecutor testified at a House committee hearing in February that removing the word “malicious” would make the law more clear for jurors, who look for an evil motive in the crime. Of the 215 stalking cases charged in district courts statewide in fiscal 2015, just seven resulted in convictions, according to legislative analysts.

Malice means the intent to commit a wrongful act, but Lifson said it has a different meaning in the minds of jurors who are not used to hearing it used in its legal context.

Lee said advocates and lawmakers were satisfied with the bill as amended.

If the law passes, Lifson said the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence and its partners will work to communicate with service providers to make sure potential victims know about the change.