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North Carolina's vague cyberstalking law makes it difficult for victims

Crimes from behind the laptop

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I'm a domestic violence victim, and I never thought I would be," says 38-year-old Melanie Johnson as she details her cyberstalking experience to me. "People try to give unsolicited advice all the time — call the police, get a restraining order — like I haven't tried these things over and over again. It's just not as easy as everyone thinks."

Johnson's story is one of absolute horror. She met a man on an online dating site, and they had a relationship for a year and a half. After she broke it off — she says he had a terrible temper and she could see a pattern of abuse emerging — he began emailing and calling her relentlessly, threatening suicide. She says he tried to hack into her Facebook and Instagram accounts over 400 times, according to email notifications she got from each site.

Over the course of two years, things got even worse. He allegedly harassed her friends and family members online; he posted her home address, place of employment and child's name on a Craigslist ad stating she was a prostitute; and he even posted secret recordings he'd made while they had sex on a pornographic website and included with it a link to her Facebook profile.

Once he allegedly began threatening to rape and kill her, and burn her house down, she was forced to move from her home of 10 years and transfer her son to another school.

Because of the way North Carolina's cyberstalking law is written (a 2012 report says the state is one of only six with laws specifically targeting the act), it's often difficult to obtain a protection order against a cyberstalker, and even harder to convict one.

The data is sparse, but a 2009 federal report showed the conviction rate for those charged was only 14.9 percent in North Carolina. The burden of proof is sometimes extremely difficult to meet because without witnessing someone type out an email or text, you can't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt it was that person who sent it.

Johnson tried five times in Mecklenburg County to file charges against her stalker and obtain a protection order. The first time, she went to a magistrate (who has since been terminated) who refused to issue the order and told her North Carolina's laws were outdated. The female magistrate told Johnson they made her concerned that if she acted upon them as written, her job would be in jeopardy.

The law, which took effect on Dec. 1, 2000, may have been written intentionally vague so it could easily be applied as technology advances year by year. It states that it's illegal to electronically communicate language threatening to damage property or injure another person, or the person's relative or dependent, with the intent of abusing, harassing, embarrassing, or extorting money or things of value. It does not define the term harassing, though.

It also makes it illegal to (1) electronically communicate any knowingly false statement regarding the death, injury or illness of the person, or any member of the person's family, with the intent to abuse, harass or embarrass or (2) allow an electronic device under the person's control to be used for any prohibited act under this statute.

A violation is a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum prison term of up to 60 days.

Critics of the state's cyberstalking law say it's not specific enough and essentially make it illegal for someone to annoy someone else by email.

The magistrate in Johnson's case may have been worried about blowback if she acted on the law as written, but Johnson says it discouraged her from seeking further help for a long time.

But in July 2013, she sought another protection order after her ex allegedly sent her a photo of a gun he'd just purchased. She was denied an order that time because the judge said she didn't seem emotional enough.

"At that point, I was done crying. I was pissed," Johnson says. The judge warned her stalker his actions were criminal and verbally ordered him to stop contacting her. Three hours after they left the courtroom, the guy began calling her again.

Another problem that makes it difficult to get protection from a cyberstalker is that they oftentimes are more technologically savvy than judges or lawmakers.

Kate (not her real name), 28, tells the story of being denied a protective order because when she explained in court her stalker, a guy who works in information technology, had installed software on her Android phone that recorded every call and sent him a satellite image of her location upon request, the defense attorney exclaimed, "That's not even possible!" The judge believed him.

"I mean, what was I supposed to do?" the 28-year-old says. "Call in the software developer as a witness?"

Even if the judge had believed her, the law doesn't specifically mention this type of violation. Kate ended up having to toss her Android and buy a less sophisticated phone. Replacing the one she'd had previously was too costly for a single mother who was unemployed at the time, and her service provider had no program to help her.

In March 2011, it was widely reported in the media that more than 50 apps for Android phones were "modified to invade user privacy." Despite an FBI crackdown on one developer, it's likely the number has grown since.

An NPR survey earlier this year found that 85 percent of women's shelters across the country reported women in their care who had been tracked by their abuser using the GPS on their phone.

But cyberstalking isn't a problem exclusive to women. A survey by the organization Working to Halt Online Abuse found 40 percent of cyberstalking victims are male.

According to the same organization, in 2013, North Carolina had the eighth highest rate of cyberstalking offenders in the U.S.

Johnson's stalker was eventually arrested after she began working with Detective Keith Way, a CMPD officer with special expertise in cyberstalking cases. Way could not comment for this story, as the case is still pending.

"The judge finally heard me," Johnson says, "but I think if I didn't have the detective on my side, I would've been herded through like cattle with everyone else there that day."

Her stalker will go to trial on charges of cyberstalking, stalking and phone harassment early next year.

I asked Johnson why she hadn't just deleted her social media accounts and changed her email address two years ago. "I wanted to see updates from my family," she says. "I wanted to see photos of my nephews being born. I've had the same email for my entire adult life. I shouldn't have to enter the witness protection program because of this man. The law should protect me."

Earlier this month, she created a petition to Gov. Pat McCrory and state Rep. Rodney Moore on Change.org urging them to update stalking laws and create a registry of offenders.

"Luckily I have an amazing manager at my job," she says, "but what about people who can't spend five hours at the magistrate's office on numerous occasions? We have to make this easier."

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