Stalking code rewrite delayed over domestic violence concerns

April 10, 2019

A two-word change to the state’s stalking law will go back to the drawing board after legislators raised concerns that it would soften state code a little too much.

House Bill 558 grew out of a recent Court of Appeals decision in a case from Mecklenburg County, where a man was posting online repeatedly about a woman but not on her social media pages. The court determined that the posts were protected under the First Amendment and vacated his conviction.

The bill as proposed would simply strike the phrase “or about” from a section of state code that defines a stalker, in part, as someone who “observes, surveils, threatens, or communicates to or about a person.”

Rep. Lee Zachary, R-Yadkin, said he proposed the change to keep state code in line with the court’s decision in State v. Shackelford, which came down last month. He said he consulted with the UNC School of Government.

But two former judges on the House Judiciary committee questioned the change Wednesday, saying the court’s ruling was fairly narrow and it may not be necessary to make this particular change, which could limit prosecutors who want to go after online stalkers.

“I would ask that we just go very carefully,” Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, a former District Court judge, said during committee.

After some discussion among committee members, Zachary asked to delay votes on the bill so he could revisit the language. He said he planned to consult with a number of people, including a lobbyist and an advocate on domestic violence issues who practices law in this area.

Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, an attorney who is part of Republican leadership in the House, said posting online about people in a manner they can ignore isn’t necessarily a threat. She used an example: If another state legislator tells people he loves her but doesn’t harass her directly, “that’s not threatening me.”

“If he’s just telling them how heartbroken he is and how he’s in love with me, what’s the harm in that?” Stevens said.

In the Shackelford case, the man was convicted of posting repeatedly about a woman he met at church, calling her his “future wife” though they barely knew each other.

“There is a woman from my church that is turning me bat crazy,” he said in one of the postings, according to the court decision. “She is the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I see before I lay down at night. I strongly believe that she is an angel in disguise, that she is the girl that God sent down from heaven for me.”

He also emailed one of the woman’s friends about a plan to issue a $500 million note as part of a viral marketing campaign that would ultimately result in him taking a polygraph test on CNN to prove that he had “talked to God over 20 times and seen his face five times,” the court decision states.