Stalking Loophole Closed in WV Criminal Code

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Stalking is again listed as a crime in West Virginia code as of May 2, 2023. Senate Bill 132, which passed during the legislative session earlier this year, has finally taken effect.

“This is a real win for West Virginia,” said Joyce Yedlosky, one of two Team Coordinators for the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WVCADV). “Stalking is not only terrifying to experience, but it’s a predictor of lethality. Someone who is being stalked by an intimate partner like an ex is at a higher risk of being killed by that person. The risk is actually three times as high on average.”

Shadowy figures lurk at night among trees.

Stalking was once law in West Virginia, but had been removed—partially. Certain parts of the code still referred to stalking, even though it didn’t exist as a criminal offense.

The removal created a host of problems.

Stalking is one form of harassment, but it is also distinct in that it is typically intended to force some sort of contact, invade privacy and/or create fear from being constantly watched or followed. It is intended to torment or terrorize.

In addition to those distinctions, having different parts of the state criminal code use conflicting language was problematic for prosecutors and law enforcement. Having removed the stalking language as a crime “let some stalkers slip through the cracks, creating additional barriers for survivors when reporting or seeking a protective order. This also complicated multidisciplinary response, as the discrepancy in the criminal code made it harder for a coordinated response,” explained Katie Spriggs, Executive Director of the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center (EPEC). EPEC’s mission is to protect victims, prevent violence and empower survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking.

Another issue was that “stalking” (not harassment) is used in both state and national education and awareness efforts, making it more difficult to inform not only the public but also law enforcement about the associated dangers–and more difficult to track.

“We have stalking awareness month–not harassment awareness month. SPARC is Stalking Prevention Awareness Resource Center–not Harassment Prevention Awareness Resource Center. More importantly, the Dangerousness/Lethality Assessment Guide used by law enforcement in West Virginia highlights stalking as a lethality indicator, not general harassment,” Yedlosky explained.

An example of how this differs is the recent case in which a man was accused of calling his ex repeatedly. Not once, not a few times… but more than 800 times over one 48-hour period, averaging 16 calls an hour. The alleged stalker sent thousands of text messages to her over several months, and was accused of engaging in other behaviors common to stalking.

There is a federal law making it illegal to cross state lines to stalk someone. In this case, the victim was in WV, and her ex lived in Maryland. But where both victim and stalker are in West Virginia, the criminal code and even educational materials about it had become confusing.

“We needed stalking back on the books in West Virginia,” said Raymie White, Legal Services Coordinator for WVCADV. “The language in state code was unclear, which left a greater possibility that law enforcement could overlook lethality indicators, and might incorrectly assess the danger someone was in. Thankfully, that ambiguity in code is now resolved.”

Within the mountain state, employees at advocacy organizations like EPEC, WVCADV, and WV FRIS were feeling both heartened and relieved.

“We are appreciative that the legislature and governor addressed the gap in WV code and clarified the crime of stalking.  The legislation enables West Virginia to rejoin the other 49 states, U.S. Territories, District of Columbia, and military justice systems in outlawing stalking and providing a clear legal recourse for victims in our state,” said Nancy Hoffman of the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information Services (WV FRIS).

“As of May 2, that confusion has been removed from state code. Senators Weld and Trump were our champions who got this bill moving; Senate President Blair was also instrumental,” said Yedlosky. “And we’re so grateful.”

“We’re already designing trainings to help law enforcement understand the change and prevent further violence—even violence leading to death,” said Tonia Thomas, also a Team Coordinator with WVCADV. “This change will save lives, and we’re absolutely thrilled.”

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