Stalking case highlights legal lacuna

Police: Legal changes would make offense easier to prosecute

When a young woman reported to police that she was being stalked by her ex-boyfriend, officers were faced with a challenge.

No legislation on stalking exists in the Cayman Islands and although the victim alleged that the man had followed her from Canada to the Cayman Islands, moved into the same apartment complex and even started showing up at her work, it was initially difficult to identify a specific law that had been broken.

In this case, the perpetrator used seven cellphone numbers and multiple social media accounts to pester the victim, continuing even after police had warned him to stop.

A 50-page sampling of those messages, including one described by prosecutors as grossly offensive, was ultimately used as the key evidence for a charge of causing harassment, alarm or distress. Brett Moor, 28, admitted the charge and was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence this week.

But the investigating officers, lawyers in the case and the magistrate who dealt with it, all indicated that the offense fit the profile of a stalking case, rather than traditional harassment.

Magistrate Valdis Foldats, in his sentencing remarks, indicated that the case was the first of its kind that he was aware of in Cayman and looked to U.K. guidelines on stalking to help guide him on sentencing.

For the police officers who investigated the case, the absence of specific legislation made the investigation tricky.

“If we hadn’t have had those messages it would have been much more difficult to bring charges,” said Police Constable Jonathan Kern.

He said the crime involved a pattern of legal behaviors that cumulatively amounted to stalking.

“It is not one identifiable criminal offense; it is multiple legal behaviors that collectively add up to a criminal offense. Turning up at her work, getting seven different numbers to contact her – none of those things are offenses on their own,” he said.

“Specific stalking legislation would assist us in investigating patterns of behavior like this,” he said.

Harassment usually requires threat or fear of violence which, while present in this case, was not the dominant feature of the behavior, Mr. Kern said.

Specific stalking statutes in other jurisdictions consider the combined effect of persistent unwanted contact in curtailing the freedom of the victim, even if that contact is outwardly affectionate. In this case, for example, the victim moved house to avoid Mr. Moor after he moved in to the same apartment complex.

The U.K. introduced anti-stalking legislation through the Protection of Freedoms Act in 2012.

Guidance on the legislation, published by the U.K. Crown Prosecution Service, states that it was introduced to deal with the types of behavior demonstrated in the Moor case.

“In many cases, the conduct might appear innocent (if it were to be taken in isolation), but when carried out repeatedly so as to amount to a course of conduct, it may then cause significant alarm, harassment or distress to the victim,” it states.

Tweaking legislation in the Cayman Islands would likely begin with adding a definition of the offense to the harassment statutes in the Penal Code, according to Inspector Kevin Ashworth, manager of the RCIPS Family Support Unit.

He believes legislation on stalking could also give officers power to curtail such behavior before it escalates.

He said police would like the option to issue a kind of cease and desist notice to the perpetrator, particularly in low-level cases, notifying them that their behavior is perceived as stalking and instructing them to stop.

“That basically lets them know that their behavior is not wanted and any repeat will result in arrest,” he said.

In the initial stages of such cases, the harassment can be as simple as a handful of unwanted texts or phone calls that persist once the victim has clearly asked for it to stop.

In those cases, Constable Kern believes victims are not necessarily looking for the police to press charges, they simply want the harassment to stop.

“The victim in this instance came to us with a simple request. She wanted it to stop. If someone gives a clear message saying ‘Leave me alone,’ that should be enough. That is really the only responsibility the victim has in cases like this.”

Mr. Kern said he hoped the bravery of the victim in this case and the fact that officers were able to secure a conviction would persuade men and women in the same situation to come forward.

Mr. Ashworth said adding specific stalking legislation would also likely result in more reports.

“I think victims would be more willing to come forward and be heard if we addressed it within this sphere,” he said. But, he added, the conviction Tuesday showed that police can and do prosecute such offenses.

“We want people to know that we take it seriously and we want people to come forward,” he said.