Stalking not so easily stopped Columbia abduction: Maryland's law is well-intended, but also has vast limitations.

September 25, 1997

CRIMES SUCH AS last week's kidnapping in Columbia of Stephanie Musick by an obsessed admirer are frustrating. John Robert Righter, a former co-worker of Ms. Musick's at a department store, had followed the college student and made unwanted advances for some time.

Legally, however, there was little that could be done to keep Mr. Righter away from her. There is no legal way to lock someone up for a crime he or she hasn't yet committed.

Maryland does have laws against stalking and harassment, but there were no grounds for charging Mr. Righter with either until Friday's kidnapping. The harassment law, which covers the repeated, annoying, non-threatening behavior Ms. Musick suffered, requires that the suspect first be warned to stop, which Howard County police did. Even taking away the warning requirement, harassment is a minor crime, punishable by 90 days in jail. So victims can only get short-term protection.

Stalking -- a pattern of behavior intended to convey a physical threat -- is more serious, punishable in Maryland by five years in jail. A few years ago, federal and state governments saw the need to protect people who had reason to fear for their safety, though they had not suffered a tangible crime. These are good laws. Still, such laws cannot protect people in situations such as Ms. Musick's, who was not threatened until last week.

Stalking laws are more often invoked in conjunction with a tangible crime than as a preventive measure. An Oregon man who terrorized an Anne Arundel woman appeared in court in North Carolina this week on federal stalking charges. He also has been charged under Maryland law. Although the woman filed a complaint against him in 1995, police did not have his Oregon address and could not locate him. He was not charged until after he tried to burn her house, when police found evidence of stalking.

We have to accept that the stalking law can offer but limited protection. Restraining orders are granted only in domestic cases in Maryland and are difficult to enforce. Prosecutors say the best protection may be good recordkeeping. Keep phone tapes, letters and other evidence as soon as you suspect a problem, so you have a case to send the abuser to jail and keep him there as long as the law allows.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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