A bill that expands the definition of stalking to encompass 21st century technology was signed into law on Monday by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.
Senate-Enrolled Act 44 expands the definition of stalking under the law to include electronic means of contact and surveillance.
“It’s important to keep our statutes up to date,” Teton County Rep. Mike Yin said. “We didn’t have a way to prosecute someone who was stalking someone virtually, like GPS, tracking devices or other forms of internet tracking. Now if you’re harassing someone virtually, tracking someone or what websites they’re visiting, that can still fall under the statute of stalking. I think it’s another tool in the toolbox to help keep people safe.”
“We are very appreciative to see state legislation attempting to address how fast technology changes,” said Adrian Croke, the director of education and Prevention at Community Safety Network in Jackson.
“Technological abuse is extremely common, specifically offenders using technology to manipulate, control or have power over their partner they’re abusing,” Croke said. “We see that very often with smartphones, specifically surveillance tech.”
Tracey Trefren, victim coordinator for Teton County Victim Services, said that without this specificity, she’d seen victims’ content being liked on Facebook and victims contacted through Snapchat and Instagram.
“It raised an interesting question,” Sergeant Clayton Platt said. “When you like someone’s Facebook photo, for example, does that constitute contact?”
Teton County, at least, decided a few years ago that the answer to this was yes.
According to both Platt and Trefren, the Teton County judges, most notably James Radda, were ahead of the game and have been manually writing into their protection orders that contact through electronic means or social media is barred.
“We’ve built an awareness of it through discussions we’ve had with law enforcement and the judges,” Trefren said.
“We’re really lucky to have a court system here that’s really responsive and trying to stay on top of it.”
Still, advocates struggle to keep up with pace of evolving technology.
“It was tough during COVID because events like Tech Summit San Francisco and other trainings were canceled where you can stay on top of this stuff,” Trefren said. “There’s constantly new apps out.”
“There’s so many different levels of it,” Croke said. “There are many programs where you actually can’t even tell it’s on your phone, that’s what I’ve learned. Someone could just have access to someone’s phone because they know their password, or there’s more advanced technology that allows them to read text messages, read emails and listen to calls.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Landen, of Casper, said this area of law became an interest of his during his days as an administrator at Casper College.
“I saw students and staff were the victims of stalking,” Landen said. “Most of the victims of this crime are young women trying to get away from abusive or controlling situations. It’s a very dangerous crime that almost always escalates.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have experienced stalking in their lifetimes.
“Around 4 million people were stalked last year in the U.S.,” Landen said. “That’s just how many were reported. Unfortunately this is a crime that’s on the rise. It’s pretty easy to invade someone’s privacy on their phone. That’s one of the other reasons I felt it was important that we address it.”
Upton’s chief of police, Susan Bridge, spoke in favor of the bill, testifying how law enforcement had been unable to prosecute electronic invasions of privacy.
“[Bridge] testified to a gentleman who, a few months prior to her testifying, was stalking his former wife,” Landen recalled. “His former wife had found an Apple tag on her vehicle and he admitted he placed it there, but ultimately the district attorneys didn’t feel they had enough to charge him on since the stalking statutes were based on the intent to harass and threaten.”
Landen said that the bill was written carefully to ensure it doesn’t penalize parents who have a right to keep an eye on their kids’ activity. The bill targets only individuals with the intent to harass.
According to Landen, Wyoming is one of about eight states that have chosen to introduce legislation including electronic surveillance as a form of stalking.
“This gives another tool in the toolbox for our law enforcement to deal with perpetrators of that crime,” he said.
Landen said the Legislature will continue to revisit this arena as technology continues to advance.
“Stalking is not what it used to be,” he said. “We think of it as someone sitting outside in front of your house but it’s also someone invading your privacy by using electronic devices. I’m really glad that now that’s against the law in Wyoming.”