The Path to Cyberstalking Laws Tied to the First State

The seeds for federal cyberstalking laws can be traced to Delaware’s then-junior senator, Joe Biden, drafting the Violence Against Women Act.

While cyberstalking was not part of the language used in the original Act of 1994, the legislation laid the groundwork for laws that have evolved to keep up with technology.

For example, two years after the Act’s passing, the interstate stalking statute was passed.

VAWA, as it came to be known, evolved to include the cyberstalking provision being used by federal prosecutors to try the family of Thomas Matusiewicz, who opened fire in the lobby of the New Castle County Courthouse in 2013 killing his ex-daughter-in-law, Christine Belford, and her friend, Laura “Beth” Mulford. Thomas Matusiewicz also wounded two capitol police officers before killing himself.

“The newly revised cyberstalking statute is a much broader and more powerful tool than its predecessors,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward J. McAndrew wrote in the January 2014 issue of The United States Attorneys’ Bulletin. “Regardless of the location of the defendant or the victim, it can be used against cyberbullying, extortion, defamation, threats, spying, and even murder, death or serious bodily injury resulting from digital harassment, intimidation, or surveillance.”

McAndrew is one of the federal prosecutors claiming Matusiewicz’s widow, Lenore, and their children, David Matusiewicz and Amy Gonzalez, engaged in a conspiracy to cyberstalk and harass Belford in the years leading up to her death.

The newly revised federal cyberstalking statute is a flexible and powerful weapon that can take on many forms of online abuse, said McAndrew, who is considered a national cybercrime expert and was part of the prosecution team against David Pokora – the first foreign hacker to be convicted of stealing trade secrets in the United States.

“From simple harassment to premeditated murder [the stalking statute] provides a statutory net for investigating and prosecuting online abuses that may have fallen through prior gaps in the federal criminal code,” he wrote last year. “Thus, the cyberstalker or cyberbully next door is no longer immune from criminal prosecution under federal law.”

Violence Against Women Act ties to Delaware

Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act to Congress on June 20, 1990 – a year after reading FBI reports and noting a trend of domestic violence.

It would take four years for the legislation to pass Congress as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. President Bill Clinton signed it into law on Sept. 13, 1994.

“Even just 20 years ago, violence against women in America was an epidemic few people wanted to talk about, let alone do something about,” Vice President Biden wrote in a News Journal opinion piece last year. “No one denied punching a wife in the face or pushing her down the stairs was reprehensible. But most people refused to intervene. They called domestic violence a ‘family affair.’ Critics of proposed laws protecting women from this violence claimed they would lead to the ‘disintegration’ of the family.”

Attorney Claire DeMatteis, who went to work for Biden shortly after the Act was signed, remembers the initial resistance to the law, even from the women’s movement who opposed it because it would “distract from their agenda.”

DeMatteis traveled across the country introducing the law, convincing police, judges and victim advocates that this was not an imposition rather a way for them to be part of the solution. There also was training and funding that helped convince people to buy in.

“The strength of the Violence Against Women Act is that it wasn’t a law that would have only impacted somebody next year or the year after,” DeMatteis said. “The strength of the Violence Against Women Act is that it protected women from future threats of harm.

“When you look at what’s happening today, whether it’s cyberstalking, the NFL incidents and the rape incidents on campus, if it weren’t for the Violence Against Women Act, you would be hearing screaming for more laws. You’re not hearing that.”

DeMatteis said the Act “continues to grow stronger each time that it’s reauthorized.”

Initially, the Act was designed to improve criminal justice responses to domestic violence and increase the availability of services to those victims. But the Act’s re-authorizations in the 2000s expanded its decree to address stalking in other laws.

For example, VAWA’s reauthorization made it a crime under the 1996 Interstate Stalking and Prevention Act for anyone who travels in country or a foreign nation to use any interactive computer service to engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress to a person or causes the person or a relative to fear for their life or physical safety.

Another reauthorization allowed cyberstalking to be prosecuted under the 1934 Telephone Harassment Act, which made it a crime to anonymously and knowingly use the Internet to transmit messages “to annoy, abuse, harass, or threaten a person.”

Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center, a program of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said there has been a need for an evolution of laws to accurately reflect the realities of what stalking looks like today.

“If we think back to the early ’90s when many these statutes were first enacted, we didn’t have social media,” Garcia said. “Not everybody had a cellphone. Not everybody was on email.”

The laws have had to keep up, she said.

One way to do that is for laws to come with broader language that are inclusive of the technologies that are known now and those under development.

“We can’t predict what the technology is going to be, but from our perspective when we talk about stalking and cyberstalking, we don’t see them as distinct behaviors,” she said. “What we know is that the behaviors are the same, but offenders are using the technology to facilitate those behaviors that they always engaged in.


~Esteban Parra, The News Journal, Delaware On-line