In-Depth: Sponsoring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced this legislation to increase criminal penalties for stalking children and ensure that law enforcement officials are aware of and using best practices to combat online harassment of children. Upon introducing this bill, Sen. Toomey said, “Enacting this bipartisan measure to strongly punish deviants who exploit the internet to terrorize children is a necessary and common-sense step Congress should take.”
Original cosponsor Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) adds:
"This bipartisan legislation would give law enforcement and judges additional tools to keep young victims safe from adults who have stalked them and targeted them online. Stalking and cyberstalking offenses are uniquely invasive and distressing for victims and their families, especially when the victim is a minor. I urge my colleagues to support and swiftly pass this measure so that we can continue to fight against predatory behavior, keep our kids safe and ensure that they and their families have peace of mind."
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), sponsor of this bill’s House companion, says:
“We have no higher responsibility than to protect our kids. We must do everything we can to forcefully respond to egregious instances of stalking and cyberstalking, especially when committed against minors – the most vulnerable among us. The Combat Online Predators Act ensures that, not only are we increasing penalties for these crimes, but we are also requiring federal law enforcement officials to constantly evaluate and update practices to combat this online harassment.”
The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys’ President and CEO, David LaBahn, expressed support for this bill:
“One of the most important measures of an effective criminal justice system is how it responds to crimes against its most vulnerable victims. The Combat Online Predators Act will support prosecutors and create safer communities by enhancing the criminal penalties available against those convicted of stalking minors.”
This legislation unanimously passed the Senate with the support of one Senate cosponsor, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), has six bipartisan House cosponsors, including three Democrats and three Republicans, and has not yet received a committee vote.
The National Center for Victims of Crime and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys support this legislation.
Of Note: This legislation was inspired by the story of the Zezzo family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Their teenage daughter, Madison, was cyber-stalked by a friend’s father on social media when she was 13. Despite the sexual nature of the stalking, the then-51-year-old stalker was only sentenced to probation and counseling after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor. Three years later, the same stalker began making contact again and was ultimately arrested in a local police sting and sentenced to 18 months to seven years in a Pennsylvania state prison.
After this bill’s Senate passage, Sen. Toomey added:
“As a father, I cannot imagine the pain and anger the Zezzo family experienced. The passage of this bipartisan bill is a tribute to their perseverance to ensuring that we have strong penalties for monsters who use the internet as a tool to stalk children. I urge my colleagues in the House to pass this bill quickly so that the president can sign it into law."
The Zezzo parents, Erin and Tony Zezzo, expressed support for this bill after its passage:
“Technology and the onset of social media has far surpassed our current federal and state legislation and this bill is a critical first step in providing for the safety of those most precious to us, our children. Individuals who commit these heinous crimes, prey upon, and cyberstalk our children, need to know that the penalties are severe. Every state must now take a look at their current stalking laws, ensure that all gaps are closed, and that our children are protected at all cost. The fear a stalking victim feels is indescribable, debilitating, and humiliating and the scars left behind are there for life. The online evidence will also never go away. This is no way to live your life, especially for a child, and this bill is a first step in making the much-needed changes to our cyberstalking laws and prevention of such crimes."
Under current law, it is a federal crime for an individual to harass or intimidate another individual in a way that places them in fear or physical harm or causes them significant emotional distress, whether in person or online. The maximum penalty for such crimes is five years in prison; the maximum sentence increases to 10 years in prison for crimes in which the perpetrator causes serious physical injury to the victim or uses a dangerous weapon.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / PeopleImages)