By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
A bill prohibiting the use of electronic devices in stalking crimes has cleared its first hurdle in the House after winning approval from a House committee.
Senate File 100, which was approved Tuesday in its first review by the full House, would create a crime covering those who use electronic devices such as “tiles” or cell phones to stalk people.
In the past, stalkers had to physically track their victims, following them in vehicles or sitting outside of their homes or work, or they placed telephone calls by landlines. Such tactics made it easier for law enforcement to catch and prosecute them because they were in plain sight, according to law enforcement officials.
In the digital age, however, stalkers have become much more sophisticated, using computers, cell phones, global positioning systems and other devices to track and terrorize their victims from the comfort of their homes.
However, Wyoming’s stalking laws have lagged woefully behind when it comes to prosecuting crimes using such devices, said bill sponsor Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, who told legislators he wanted to close loopholes in Wyoming’s stalking law with SF100.
SF100 would expand on existing laws to also make stalking through the use of electronic devices such as cell phones, IPads, computers and tracking “tiles” illegal. Tracking “tiles” are typically used to help people track personal items such as keys, wallets, purses and backpacks, but in recent years have been repurposed to track victims.
In last week’s House Judiciary Committee meeting, Landen said the proposed legislation emerged out of his experience in his 30 years as an administrator at Casper College, where he saw numerous examples of young victims being stalked. Landen noted the most common targets are young women between the ages of 18 and 24. In most cases, the stalker is someone they know or who they have been involved with.
New venue for stalking
The proposed bill in no way changes the definition of stalking, but rather updates the law to address the new methods in which stalking is occurring in 2022, according to Taylor Courtney, investigations sergeant for the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office.
This new legislation is vital, Courtney said, because it clarifies the language concerning digital modes of stalking and allows such incidents to be charged as felonies, which currently is not the case.
Increasingly, Courtney said his department is seeing more cases of stalking involving electronic devices, particularly with perpetrators accessing apps, email and other personal accounts on cell phones or IPads to track a victim’s movements and then intimidating them by exerting control over their lives.
“If you think about your own cell phone and what you have on there, everything from your contacts with friends, bank account information, messages and other communication and all your social media, our entire lives are on our cell phones or iPads,” he said. “And that is the most target-rich environment for somebody who’s stalking.”
Given the typical connections between the victim and the perpetrator, the stalker knows passwords, email addresses and other personal information that makes it easy to access accounts and exert control over the life of a victim.
“What a stalker is doing is trying to control, create or instill fear to be able to have power or just for the sheer thrill of being able to scare someone and make them change their pattern of life,” he said. “It’s an obsession.”
Upton Police Chief Susan Bridge, who also spoke in favor of the proposed law in an earlier House committee meeting, said that she and her department have also seen an increase in these types of electronic stalking cases.
In one case she references, an estranged husband was tracking his ex-wife through AirTags that he asked the couple’s son to conceal on his mother’s car, so the husband could follow her every movement.
“We are seeing this more and more,” she said, noting that SF100 would be the perfect solution for prosecuting these crimes.
Clearing the House
Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, said on the House floor the bill is the legislative response to the modern evolution of stalking.
“Today, the world has changed,” he said. “Surveillance occurs through small devices that can be dropped into a purse or into a car or behind a license plate. It can also occur with certain computer applications that allow you to follow individuals, cell phones and the location of the cell phone or GPS system in some automobiles.”
Washut, a former police officer, repeated earlier concerns voiced by legislators about the law interfering with a parent’s ability to monitor their children via their cell phone location.
“First and foremost, you must establish that we have a crime of stalking occurring and a harassment aspect of stalking is occurring,” he said.
The bill was approved Wednesday for a third and final reading Thursday in the House.