(UM Legislative News Service) Survivors of domestic violence, stalking and harassment came to the Montana Capitol Wednesday to rally support for Senate Bill 114, which would update laws dealing with stalking and restraining orders to include electronic communications and harsher penalties for repeat offenders.
“It’s time to bring the statute up to date, to address the technological advances that face our society today,” said Sen. Jennifer Gross, D-Billings, who sponsored the bill.
The proposed bill would also allow victims of child sex abuse and human trafficking to be granted restraining orders.
Angela Miller was one of several people who supported the bill’s inclusion of cyber communication as a form of stalking. She told the committee Wednesday that her ex-boyfriend repeatedly harassed her through email, but the police weren’t able to take action.
“The fact that it was email did not make it benign,” Miller said.
The new legislation would also change the standard of stalking to include causing a “reasonable person” emotional or physical distress. State Assistant Attorney General Anna Saverud said the language is specifically nuanced and would allow some adaptability for court interpretation.
“Think of a reasonable person,” she said, referencing a case brought up during the hearing. “Is it reasonable how they would interpret 5,200 emails or 5,200 phone calls?”
The ACLU’s Zuri Moreno opposed the bill’s 5- to 10-year increase in sentencing for repeat offenders, as well as increases in fines from $10,000 to $50,000. They said the jump would just cause the criminal justice system more grief.
“We already have a burdened criminal justice system,” Moreno said. “We do not need to hold people in state prisons for longer.”
Moreno also opposed how the bill would allow tribal court stalking convictions to be considered as repeat offenses. They said the state cannot use the criminal processes of a reservation without permission from tribes.
“Without consent, this is an encroachment on tribal sovereignty,” Moreno said.
Moreno said the ACLU would support the bill with amendments.
SB 114 would cost about $1.2 million in state funds over the next four years, which would pay for the estimated influx of cases under the new policies.
Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.