Md. stalking bill is rapidly gaining supporters

February 10, 1993|By Laura Lippmann | Laura Lippmann,Staff Writer

Dinah Lynch knew someone wanted to hurt her. But she had to wait until the man fired 11 rounds into her bedroom, missing her by inches, before she could use the law to put him away for more than 30 days.

The Bowie woman had been stalked for more than a year by a co-worker, an Amtrak passenger engineer like herself. He followed her everywhere, taunted her on the telephone, and even moved to her neighborhood.

Under current Maryland law, all she could do was complain of harassment, a misdemeanor punishable by no more than 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Police told her the man had to act before they could file tougher charges, no matter what he threatened.

"I was told, 'There's nothing we can do, Ms. Lynch, until he actually does something to you,' " she testified yesterday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, urging its members to make "stalking" a felony.

A stalking law would fill the legal gap between harassment and assault, giving victims relief from those who make threats.

It is impossible to determine how many of the state's harassment cases might fall under a stalking statute. But in states where the law has been enacted, such as Virginia, many complaints have been filed.

In Maryland, victims range from a Garrett County woman who complains that a female neighbor shadows her every move with binoculars, to a Baltimore woman whose ex-boyfriend taunts her with violent threats.

California passed the first stalking law in 1990. Lawmakers in other states -- often inspired by a gruesome crime that captured the public attention -- quickly followed. As of last year, 29 states had anti-stalking laws.

In Maryland, Annapolis and Prince George's County have their own versions.

Since last session, the bill has gone from a low-profile loser, dying quietly in a House of Delegates committee, to one of the most popular pieces of legislation in both chambers.

There are at least six versions so far, with support from key leaders in both chambers.

Yesterday, Sen. Walter M. Baker promised the Senate would pass a stalking law that could withstand a constitutional challenge.

"I think you can rest assured that as far as the Senate is concerned, we're going to have a stalking law," said the Cecil County Democrat, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

In Ms. Lynch's case, her harasser seemed to be everywhere, following her constantly. "I'd call him ubiquitous," she said.

She said she found his behavior bizarre and threatening, but police said they could not help her and the courts failed her. When he first tried to hurt her -- attempting to run her down in his car in October 1990 -- he received a suspended sentence and his record was expunged, Ms. Lynch said.

On April 17, 1991, the man broke into Ms. Lynch's town house, climbed the stairs and fired a .32-caliber gun into her bedroom. He was admitted to the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a state facility for the criminally insane, where he remains.

Ms. Lynch was lucky, but other Maryland men and women have not been so fortunate, said Sen. Janice Piccinini, one of several legislators to sponsor a stalking bill.

"We have already had deaths," the Baltimore County Democrat said, although she could not cite specific examples. "[But] most people perceive stalking to be a domestic issue and they're very reluctant to deal with it."

No two versions of the stalking bill are exactly alike, but all would give the crime felony status, with at least a year in jail and $1,000 in fines for a first-time offense.

Jann Jackson from the House of Ruth, Baltimore's shelter for battered women, said the bills are generally on target.

"The only bill we don't like is [Senate President Thomas V. Mike] Miller's bill, because it's too tough," she said, explaining that it calls for mandatory sentences of two to 15 years. "Mandatory sentences turn judges off. I'd rather see a lot of convictions than a really high standard that cannot be met."

STATE HOUSE

Today's news from Annapolis also includes:

Victims: A Senate committee hears testimony on a bill that would forbid police from releasing the names and addresses of victims of violent crime. Page 8B.

Trash: The Department of the Environment is pushing legislation that would give the state more control over where landfills are placed. Page 8B.

Homeless: In what has become a February ritual, more than 200 homeless men and women from throughout Maryland traveled to Annapolis yesterday to try their hand at lobbying for bills that help their cause. Page 8B.

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