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Changes to Wyoming’s stalking law will address electronic devices

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One bill that fell under the radar this year will make it illegal to use electronic devices such as phones, iPads, computers and GPS tracking devices to harass and stalk individuals. The Wyoming legislature overwhelmingly supported the measure that makes that activity a violation of the state's stalking laws. It took an incident in tiny Upton to get the bill passed.

During a committee presentation, Casper Sen. Bill Landen said stalking is a serious problem in the country.

"It's interesting to me that one out of six women by the time they reach 25 years old have been stalked. In the year 2019 3.4 million people were stalked in the United States. Seventy percent of those who were surveyed said they feared for their lives," said Landen.

He is a former Dean of Students at Casper College and told the committee that he dealt with a number of stalking cases in his career. That's why Landen agreed to sponsor a bill to enhance Wyoming's stalking law. Actually, the legislature did increase penalties for misdemeanor stalking in 2018 to a year and felony stalking to up to ten years along with some other enhancements. But what they missed is a growing problem in the state, which is the use of technology to stalk and harass.

Recently Upton Police Chief Susan Bridge got a call from a woman who discovered her estranged husband had arranged for a GPS tracking device to be attached to her car so he could follow her every movement. Bridge was not familiar with that type of technology, but they eventually solved the case with the help of the Weston County Sheriff's office.

"They went ahead and located the tracking device, filed the affidavit for charges. And it was declined," Bridge said.

She explained that the prosecutors told her that GPS tracking devices were not illegal under Wyoming law, even if they were used to harass someone. Bridge then called Crook County Sexual Assault and Family Violence Services Director Sandra Stevens who looked into the matter and she was also surprised.

" When I got to looking at it, it was like, Wow, it's really not in the state statutes for stalking or anything regarding global devices," said Stevens.

GPS items are on cell phones, iPads, computers and even items to help people find lost keys. So Stevens and Bridge reached out to the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual assault in an effort to get a law passed making the activity illegal.

Taylor Courtney, the investigations sergeant for the Natrona County Sheriff's office, is very familiar with these types of incidents. He said there are lots of ways people use electronic devices to stalk and harass. But lately, people have gotten access to an individual's Google or iCloud accounts which lets them get into that person's apps.

"They might know your finances, they might know your school classes are where you go on a daily basis and look at your GPS, breadcrumbs, and see, you know where you've been, and they can pattern your life and then use that information to essentially harass you and place the person in fear," said Courtney.

He said there are ways to do even more.

"Somebody can sit in the comfort of their own home in their living room, and hack into somebody's Netflix account, and then send them a message that says, 'Oh, I see that you're watching such and such show tonight'," said Courtney. "And then that victim now feels like they're under physical surveillance, they're being watched 24 hours a day."

Courtney said the new law should lead to more prosecutions and he added that it is focused on those who intend to harass or do harm and doesn't apply to positive uses of the technology, for instance, parents who are interested in their kids' whereabouts. Stevens is excited that legislators responded to a growing problem.

"I think it is a huge, huge win for victims. This will definitely give victims what they need if they decide to go to law enforcement. And it also gives law enforcement that huge win in order to be able to present it and even for our prosecutors to be able to prosecute these cases," said Stevens.

For Bridge, the whole thing lays out the challenges facing small town law enforcement agencies in trying to keep up with technology to protect their citizens.

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