Representative, former police chief, proposes tighter stalking laws

      A state representative frustrated by years of having to tell stalking victims he couldn’t help them is sponsoring a bill to toughen Missouri statute.

      Retired Joplin police chief and former Department of Public Safety director Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) says technology has outpaced Missouri law.

Representative Lane Roberts (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications, 01-29-2020)

      “The use of technology – computers, tracking devices, cell phones – to be able to stalk and terrorize victims has grown exponentially over the last decade and our statute simply does not address it,” said Roberts. 

      “Having to look somebody who’s the victim of stalking in the eye and tell them why you can’t do things to help them out, knowing full well that they’re being terrorized by people, is a pretty uncomfortable and frustrating position,” said Roberts.  “Finally, frankly I’m in a position to maybe do something about it.”

      How Missouri law dealing with orders of protection defines stalking only covers the following of a person or unwanted communication.  Roberts’ proposal, House Bill 292, would broaden it to cover things like the use of cell phones, GPS, cameras, or third parties to observe, threaten, or communicate about or to someone.

      The House Committee on Crime Prevention heard from Janice Thompson Gehrke. She about her experience being harassed by her ex-husband, who is now in prison for shooting his ex-fiancé and her boyfriend.  This included sending his roommate to her workplace multiple times on the pretense of conducting business, having friends monitor her on social media, and using her information to have her phone spammed with contest and prize offers.

      “Now this may not seem like a big deal to some, but when you’re dealing with an abuser like him, you know there is a message being sent:  ‘I am watching you, and short of living your life completely off the grid, you’re not going to get away from me.’”

      She spoke of another victim who is being harassed through threats on social media, but the law does not allow her to seek an order of protection because, as she put it, “it’s not technically him.”

      “What we survivors ask is that you give us as many tools as possible to help set up as many roadblocks [as possible] preventing access to us so we have a chance to escape alive,” said Thompson Gehrke.

      Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Public Policy Director Jennifer Carter Dochler said her organization backs HB 292.

      “Survivors deserve safety so we must continue to keep pace with the ways offenders find loopholes such as those that are remedied in House Bill 292.  We’re very appreciative of Representative Roberts, who filed this legislation after hearing from constituents the barriers they were experiencing with applying for a stalking order of protection,” said Carter Dochler.  “Our statute needs to be revised to keep up with the technological advances abusers have found to stalk their victims.”

      Roberts has also filed a bill (House Bill 744) that would allow victims to seek a lifetime order of protection against an individual.  Orders of protection are only valid for a year at a time.  That has been referred to a committee.

      He said throughout his career he was frustrated many times that he couldn’t do anything to help a victim of stalking and abuse, but one case frequently comes to mind in which a mother and elementary school-aged child were being abused.

      “It was so outrageous, and this individual was so convinced that because he was a man, it was ‘my way or the highway.’  I think what I said to him probably could be interpreted as a threat,” said Roberts.  “That kind of frustration, I think, exists for every police officer.  Every officer who knows that this victim is depending on them and we’re letting them down.”

      The committee has not voted on HB 292.

Missouri House passes 5 bills in special session called to address crime

The Missouri House has given initial approval to five bills related to crime issues in Missouri.  The bills were filed in a special session of the legislature called by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Johnathan Patterson (photo courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Republicans say the legislation will help address violent crime in a year when Kansas City is on pace to set a new record for the annual number of homicides, and St. Louis is in the midst of a wave of murders and other violence.  Democrats decried the legislation as accomplishing nothing and said the special session was called only for political reasons.

House Bill 66 would create a fund to pay for law enforcement agencies to protect witnesses or potential witnesses and their immediate families during an investigation or ahead of a trial.

St. Louis City representative Peter Merideth (D) said the bill would be meaningless because there would be no money in the fund until it is appropriated in budget legislation.

“If we really believed this was an emergency wouldn’t we be funding it right now?” asked Merideth.

Bill sponsor Jonathan Patterson (R-Lees Summit) said his bill will create the program and funding can come later, as is usually the case with newly created state programs.

“I trust the mayors of our state.  They say it’s an emergency.  I trust the law enforcement in our state.  They say it’s an emergency,” said Patterson.  “We could have funded it [during the special session].  You’d have to ask yourself, ‘does that fit within [the governor’s call of topics to be addressed in this special session]?’  I don’t know.”

Representative Peter Merideth (photo courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Merideth said he would still support the bill, but also expressed concern that the offer of state money to pay for a potential witness’ room and board could be used to incent false testimony and lead to wrongful convictions.

The House voted 147-3 to send HB 66 to the Senate.

House Bill 46, sponsored by Representative Ron Hicks (R-Dardenne Prarie), would temporarily lift the requirement that St. Louis Police officers, EMS personnel, and firefighters live in the City of St. Louis.  The residency requirement would be reinstated after September 1, 2023.

“Out of all the things in the governor’s call this is the one really good thing that will immediately improve the conditions of [St. Louis’] crime problem,” said Representative Justin Hill (R-Lake St. Louis), a former law enforcement officer and undercover detective.  “Men and women in blue want to to work in the city.  Right now they don’t feel empowered enough by their city to stay there.”

St. Louis area Democrats say the bill infringes on local control because St. Louis residents are set to vote on whether to remove the  residency requirement in November.

“This comes up about every eight years in our city.  It has never passed,” said St. Louis representative Wiley Price (D).

The House passed HB 46 117-35.

House Bill 11 would increase the penalty for endangering the welfare of a child from a misdemeanor to a first-degree felony.  Bill sponsor Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) said criminals are taking advantage of juveniles by giving them guns and encouraging them to participate in violent crime.

“The issue of our youth being involved in horrific violence should be of the utmost importance to everyone in this body.  That is why I fought so hard since I’ve been in this body … to address this in one way, shape, or form,” said Schroer.

The House passed HB 11, 117-33.

House Bill 16, also sponsored by Schroer, would define the unlawful transfer of a weapon to a minor as the lending or sale of a firearm to a minor for the purpose of interfering with or avoiding an arrest or investigation.  It would change current law to allow such transfers to be a felony even if done with parental permission.

Representative Nick Schroer (photo courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“It’s very important that we focus on these adults … that are victimizing our youth.  Sometimes it’s resulting in their death, sometimes it’s resulting in them going into the juvenile justice system,” said Schroer.  “Amending this law pursuant to the conversations we’ve had across the state it’s going to lead to a decrease in crime.”

St. Louis representative Rasheen Aldridge (D) said those bills will not reduce crime and won’t help his city.

“We’re not addressing the root cause of crime.  We’re not talking about after school programs.  We’re not talking about real criminal justice reform.  We’re not talking about how we make our neighborhoods not food deserts so we don’t have to travel 20 and 30 miles out.  We’re not talking about how we make education equitable for neighborhoods like ours,” said Aldridge.

HB 16 was sent to the Senate with a 103-45 vote.

The House also approved 133-11 House Bill 2, sponsored by Representative Barry Hovis (R-Whitewater), which aims to clarify current law on the admissibility of witness statements when a witness has been tampered with or intimidated.  If a court finds a defendant tried to keep a witness from testifying and the witness failed to appear, an otherwise inadmissible statement from that witness could be allowed into evidence.

All of these except for HB 16 were passed with a clause that would make them effective immediately upon being signed by the governor.