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.

House budget committee votes to continue barring state funding for DUI checkpoints

The House Budget Committee has proposed a state spending plan that would continue to keep state-appropriated funds from going to impaired driving checkpoints.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Last year the House proposed that $20-million made available for grants to law enforcement agencies not be allowed for use in checkpoints.  That proposal became part of the final budget plan for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2017.  Law enforcement agencies can conduct checkpoints but have to find other ways to pay for them.

The idea was controversial but has the backing of House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob), who cited data from the Department of Transportation showing saturation efforts – periods of increased law enforcement patrols on the roads – result in more arrests per dollar.

Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles) remains adamant in her opposition to the prohibition.  She proposed letting $500,000 be used on checkpoints in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, and argued that checkpoints are effective.

“Checkpoints are not really used to catch drunk drivers and impaired drivers.  They’re mostly to make the public aware of the risk of being caught,” said Conway.  “There’s been ten studies reported in five separate papers that the impact of sobriety checkpoints showed relative decrease in alcohol-related crash fatalities of 9-percent, and that’s just the fatalities.  Two of these studies showed a decrease of 64-percent in one and 28-percent in the other of blood alcohol content above the legal limit.”

Those who supported barring state-appropriated funds from going to checkpoints last year stood by their decision.  Representative Justin Hill (R-Lake St. Louis) said what’s happened in the last year shows it was correct.

“We were pretty confident last year when we spoke about focusing this fund to methods that work and actually remove drunk drivers off the road because after all, that is the goal – to arrest drunk drivers and get them off the road to make our roads safer,” said Hill.  “In the first six months, without using these funds to use checkpoints, we saw an increase of 15-percent statewide in DWI arrests, and you know some may say that’s kind of a long shot to say that’s due to the lack of checkpoints, but I truly believe that sometimes this body has to make tough decisions to force the hand to do what not only is right, but to do what’s effective and efficient.”

Representative Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis) supported the partial opening up of state funds to checkpoints.  He said he believes checkpoints are effective, at least when used in conjunction with other things like saturation efforts.  He also believes checkpoints are fairer.

“What I would point out is that when we rely solely on individual officers pulling over individual vehicles we have significant research and evidence that those stops much more disproportionately impact poor and minority communities, and at the very least a checkpoint is a uniform way to check everybody fairly, regardless of your color, regardless of the type of car you drive,” said Merideth.

Representative Justin Hill (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Many backers of the prohibition on state funds being used for checkpoints say checkpoints are unconstitutional because vehicles are stopped without probable cause.  Yukon Republican Robert Ross said while he supports law enforcement and knows Conway does too, he said the issue is one of due process.

“Checkpoints are a system of being guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.  That’s exactly counterintuitive to the way this country was set up and how we should operate,” said Ross.

The committee rejected Conway’s amendment.  If that decision stands through the completion of a budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2019, the prohibition on state-appropriated funds being used for checkpoints would continue.  Conway said she would continue to try to lift it.

“I’ve stood in crowds of 200 and 300 police officers that were going out to do saturation and/or DUI checkpoints.  They’re very enthusiastic about their programs.  I’ve stood and talked with parents and spouses and children of people that were killed by drunk driving and they’re very supportive of DUI checkpoints; in some places it’s up to a 70-percent approval of the citizens where checkpoints are used,” said Conway.  “For some it simply boils down to a constitutional issue and their minds will not be changed, but I think it’s also – since it has been found constitutional under both Missouri and United States Supreme Courts – that until that changes we have to go with the constitutionality of it, and I must say that public safety is always at the forefront of most things that I do.”

The full House, when lawmakers return from spring break next week, will debate the proposal that was passed out of the chamber’s Budget Committee.  The issue could be debated again then.