Trial to test law against e-mail stalking

September 16, 1994|By Peter H. Lewis | Peter H. Lewis,New York Times News Service

One of the nation's broadest anti-stalking laws will be challenged this year when Andrew C. Archambeau stands trial in Michigan for pursuing a woman by electronic mail and on her telephone answering machine, after she told him to stop bothering her.

Mr. Archambeau, a 32-year-old sign maker from the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, acknowledges using electronic mail to court a school teacher he had met through a video dating service, but says he meant no harm.

If he is convicted, Mr. Archambeau's unwanted ardor could cost him a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. If he is convicted and contacts the woman again, either electronically or physically, he would be subject to felony charges.

The Michigan case highlights the new legal challenges, and potential for abuse, posed by the growing popularity of electronic communications. An estimated 5 million Americans now subscribe to computer- based commercial information services, which allow the exchange of electronic mail (e-mail). Millions more communicate via message systems on office computer networks.

Spurred by reports of computer networks being used by pedophiles to prey on children, by pornographers to distribute photos and by electronic hucksters, legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to bring communications law into the digital age.

But the Archambeau case stands out because while all 50 states have enacted stalking laws since 1990, only Michigan has expanded such legislation into the electronic realm.

The plaintiff, a 29-year-old woman who asked not to be identified because she feared that publicity would jeopardize her teaching job, called the police after Mr. Archambeau left a voice recording on her home answering machine telling her that he had watched her leave work earlier in the day.

The phone message followed several weeks of lovesick pleadings sent to the woman's electronic mailbox, even after the woman messaged Mr. Archambeau several times, telling him there was no chance for a romantic relationship and that she did not want any further communication from him.

Although she was never physically approached or threatened by Mr. Archambeau, the woman pressed charges under Michigan law, which requires only that the target of unwanted attention be frightened or intimidated, or feel harassed or threatened, by repeated contacts, whether physical or electronic.

Although Michigan is believed to be the only state that specifically bans electronic stalking, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this month by Maryland Democrat Kweisi Mfume that would broaden existing stalking laws to include telephone, e-mail and other forms of electronic communication.

Eugene Volokh, acting professor at the University of California-Los Angeles Law School, said he was concerned about Mr. Mfume's proposal because "on its face, the call doesn't have to be made with the intent to threaten and abuse."

"Say I call up some congressman -- let's say it's Congressman Mfume -- and I say, 'This is a ridiculous law, and I just want to tell you I think you are a jerk,' " Mr. Volokh said. "If you read the statute broadly, that's a federal felony and raises First Amendment issues."

Mr. Volokh said that depending on the circumstances, following someone, standing outside someone's house or calling someone the telephone may be a simple expression of free speech.

Mr. Archambeau asserts he was never physically near the woman after their second and final meeting five days after they met. He says he is guilty only of wooing a fellow computer enthusiast too ardently via electronic love letters and telephone messages.

Between Feb. 17, the day they met, and April 24, Mr. Archambeau sent the woman about 20 e-mail messages and 10 postal letters and packages, the woman said.

She being initially attracted to him, in part because of a mutual interest in computers, but said she quickly became uneasy, and then frightened, as Mr. Archambeau immediately started talking about marriage and having children with her.

Five days after they met, and only hours after their last face-to-face meeting, she said, she told him, via e-mail, that she had no romantic interest in him.

He persisted with more e-mail, phone messages and postal mail. She responded politely at first, but more angrily as time went on, at one point accusing him of stalking and warning him that she would contact the police if he did not stop.

"I've been trying to court you, not stalk you," Mr. Archambeau wrote her electronically on April 15.

She replied via e-mail: "If you don't leave me alone, you are going to be sorry. You have been warned."

Mr. Archambeau said he then did a dumb thing, parking his car beyond the school fence and waving to the woman as she walked to her car.

"I felt really stupid . . . so I called her answering machine and said, 'I stalked you today.' And then the police called me the next day."

Mr. Archambeau asserted in an interview he meant the call as an apology.

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