Stalking is still a relatively new legal concept: it first appeared in the courts as cause for prosecution in 1990. The current definition of stalking is a repeated course of conduct with implicit or explicit threats that would cause a reasonable person fear; such behaviors could include behaviors such as frequent phone calls or texts and more serious behaviors, such as following the victim or vandalizing the victim's property (National Criminal Justice Association, 1993; National Center for Victims of Crime, 2007). Many improvements have been made for the implementation of stalking laws: all 50 states and the District of Columbia have stalking laws (Miller, 2001; Tjaden, 2009). While this is the most common definition of stalking across the majority of states within the United States of America, there is still a great deal of ambiguity. This ambiguity of what exactly constitutes stalking arises from issues relating to the seriousness of the incident, the type of relationship between the perpetrator and victim, and issues regarding intent and the requirement of fear (DOJ/OJP, 2001). The conceptual and legal definition states that stalking must be a course of conduct that involves multiple pursuit behaviors. There is no clear guidance about how many are needed aside from "more than one." Because many stalking behaviors are considered somewhat normative within the course of romantic relationship, we need to know where we draw the line as "stalking." If there is no clear definition or idea as to what constitutes as stalking, then it will be much more difficult to prosecute stalkers for their behaviors. Because of this ambiguity and vagueness of stalking laws, many law enforcement officials are unclear about what is considered stalking and the statutes for stalking vary greatly across the states (Tjaden, 2009).
It is crucial to examine how the legal system and law enforcement addresses issues and occurrences of stalking. Specifically, it is important to examine how the gender of both the victim and the perpetrator influence judgments of stalking. It is possible that gender roles, which have been established according to society and determine appropriate behaviors for men and women, may make stalking appear more or less acceptable depending on the context in which the stalking occurs (Yanowitz & Yanowitz, 2011). This can ultimately determine whether or not a situation is perceived as stalking and thus, can alter the outcome of legal actions taken against the stalking perpetrator. The relationship between the perpetrator and victim and stalking situations can also be influential in determining the seriousness of the incident, and thus the legal ramifications that will occur as a result (Farrell, Weisburd, & Wyckoff, 2000; Logan, Walker, Stewart, & Allen, 2006).
In order to convict a person of stalking several things must occur; it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the perpetrator caused the victim fear, certain threats were present, and the perpetrator had a continuous pattern of repeated behaviors (National Institute of Justice, 1993). Unfortunately, anti-stalking laws are rather vague and the meaning of the anti-stalking laws is not always fully understood. However, the anti-stalking laws are often upheld and rarely disregarded because of perceived vagueness. Many law officials believe that the anti-stalking laws are effective and are serving to prevent a great deal of stalking behaviors (National Institute of Justice, 1996). However, in a National Survey, victims who reported stalking did not always receive help from law enforcement officials. Of the people who reported stalking, only 8% reported that the perpetrator was arrested and 20% said that the police did not take any action at all (Baum, Catalano, Rand, & Rose, 2009). However, in a British survey, 61% victims of stalking who reported the stalking to police said that they were satisfied with the police intervention, while 35% of victims said they were unsatisfied with the police intervention (Budd & Mattinson, 2000).
Even though stalking often occurs in the context of intimate relationships, stranger and acquaintance stalking is common too. Anti-stalking laws originated as a means to protect famous individuals from obsessed fans, and thus the anti-stalking laws were more directed at stranger stalking which can be a result of erotomania (Klein, Salomon, Huntington, Dubois, & Lang, 2009). Erotomania refers to delusional beliefs that a person is loved by someone with whom they have no relationship (Brüne, 2003). Usually the object of affection and love is an acquaintance or person with whom the perpetrator has absolutely no relationship (e.g. a celebrity). The perpetrator misinterprets cues or behaviors from the victim as advances or declarations of love (Anderson, 1993; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2003). The stalker may believe that "no" means "try harder" and they are simply being tested. Anti-stalking laws that have been implemented as a result of erotomanic behavior, are actually not likely to prevent erotomanics from stalking their victims (Anderson, 1993). This is most likely because erotomanics suffer from delusional beliefs that their victims are in love with them, regardless of outright rejection or the fact that the victim may not even know his or her stalker. Anti-stalking laws are more beneficial when the stalker does not suffer from entirely delusional beliefs (Anderson, 1993).
Anti-stalking laws may not be useful, at least not useful enough, for the purpose of aiding stalking victims. In 2007, the anti-stalking laws were examined and re-evaluated (National Center for Victims of Crime, 2007). Stalkers now have many other options and mechanisms that they can employ to stalk victims. There has been a dramatic increase of stalking that now occurs on-line. Stalkers have greater access to personal information and more opportunities to contact victims if they employ cyber stalking techniques. The original anti-stalking laws clearly do not offer enough detail for recognizing stalking and this is only complicated further by new stalking behaviors that may not be as obvious or direct.
Previous researchers have examined judgments and perceptions of legal actions in regards to stalking and the majority of studies have examined stalking in the context of relational stalking. One particular study of interest, which was conducted with four different European samples of police officers, sheds light on some alarming trends (Kamphuis, Galeazzi, De Fazio, Emmelkamp, Farnham, Groenen, James, & Vervaeke, 2005). While police officers were able to discriminate between stalking and non-stalking scenarios, their responses to the scenarios are somewhat disconcerting. Specifically, Italian and Belgium police officers were more likely to place blame on the victim for the stalking and believe certain stalking myths, such as stalking is flattering. Italian police officers reported being the least sensitive officials in regards to victim reports of stalking. General practitioners in Italy were also insensitive to stalking situations. This is an alarming find because it alludes to the idea that professionals in the legal system of other countries may not take stalking seriously, especially relational stalking. As a result, victims of stalking may not be as likely to receive police intervention during their time of need if they have stalkers.
Members of the justice system and victim services also have varying opinions on how they judged relational stalking (Logan et al., 2006). In general, members of the justice system did not view relational stalking as serious as members of victim services. Both justice system and victim service representatives, as a majority, felt that women would not be able to recognize relational stalking, and thus, would not seek help for their problems for a number of reasons. These are alarming findings because they suggest that professionals in both fields may also not recognize a difference between partner violence and relational stalking. This is especially true when justice system representatives tend to rely on physical harm rather than psychological harm when assessing the seriousness of a situation (Finch, 2001). As a result, the professionals of both the justice system and victim services may not know the best course of action to take for helping victims of stalking.
Police officers felt that intervention and arrest of a perpetrator in a hypothetical situation was more necessary in the case of stranger stalking than in relational stalking (Farrell et al., 2000). However, police officers were not always able to correctly identify cases of relational stalking (Klein et al., 2009; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2001). Not only is it important to have knowledge on how law enforcement officials view stalking, it is also important to know how the general public perceives the legal system in light of stalking. In the past, people believed that police officers were more likely to intervene and arrest a stalking perpetrator was a man rather than a woman and when the stalker was a stranger rather than a former intimate partner (Cass & Rosay, 2011). Women who suffered both domestic violence and stalking from former intimate partners were more likely to employ the help of law enforcement to prevent future violence and stalking instances. While there was a significant decrease in physical violence after police intervention, stalking behaviors took more time to decrease in magnitude and occurrence (Melton, 2007). The type of behaviors that occur during each stage of relationship formation may be predictive of stalking following the termination of a romantic relationship.
Gender of the victim appears to be influential in the way that police officers respond to stalking situations. Law enforcement officials are more likely to arrest stalking perpetrators when the victim was a woman; officials also provide women with more information about protective services than to men who are victims of stalking. Women who are victims of stalking are also more likely to have their stalkers criminally prosecuted when compared to men who are victims of stalking even though men and women are equally likely to report stalking to the police (Baum et. Al, 2009; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998).
It does not seem unreasonable that there is so much confusion between determining what may or may not be considered grounds for prosecution in regards to stalking. Because society accepts and expects certain pursuit behaviors based on gender roles within intimate relationships, it makes sense that the line between simple pursuit behaviors and stalking becomes blurred. However, this is problematic because when women do need assistance or legal intervention, the legal system may not regard their situation seriously as stalking. It is critical that more research be conducted on judgments of stalking according to the legal system and law enforcement professionals. A number of factors might contribute to how people perceive stalking situations, such as the gender of the victim and perpetrator of the stalking and the relationship between the victim and perpetrator. Understanding how law enforcement officials judge stalking situations could help determine how to educate law enforcement officials about what constitutes stalking, what actions need to be taken, assessing the seriousness of the situation and re-evaluating anti-stalking laws.