The Tennessee Supreme Court issued a decision recently that attempted to clarify the evidence that the State must present to convict a defendant of stalking. The crux of the decision was that the State must present evidence that the victim experienced mental suffering or distress. The following summary was prepared by ADA William Harper.
The Facts: The victim was a 15-year employee of the Maury County Board of Education. On May 8, 2013, he received a call from a co-worker at 6:25 a.m. telling him that someone had put a sign on a fence at work about him. He arrived at his office to find two signs at his workplace stating he was a ‘deadbeat dad.’ A third sign was placed at his residence stating the same. The victim and defendant had a daughter together although they were never married.
When the victim left work that afternoon the defendant was in a vehicle sitting just outside the gate. As he pulled out the defendant continued to follow him so he drove to the sheriff’s department. After speaking to a magistrate, he obtained a warrant against the defendant for stalking. The victim testified that he had experienced previous problems with the defendant who had sent him text messages calling him a ‘deadbeat dad.’
The defendant testified and admitted to painting the signs and hanging them at his place of employment. She also admitted to following the victim as he left work and claimed she wanted to have a ‘sensible conversation.’
The Holdings: The trial court found the defendant guilty. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions. The Tennessee Supreme Court, however, reversed the conviction. The Court reviewed the elements of the statute necessary to convict for stalking :
1) A willful course of conduct;
2) Involving repeated or continuing harassment of another individual;
3) That would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress and that actually causes the victim to suffer significant mental suffering or distress; and
4) That would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested, and that actually causes the victim to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.
The Court found that while the defendant’s conduct could objectively cause significant mental suffering (objective test) the victim did not testify that he personally experienced such feelings (subjective test). Since the third and fourth elements require proof of actual harm, presumably through testimony of the victim, the Court found insufficient evidence and reversed the conviction.
On a side note, one issue that the Supreme Court accepted when they granted the appeal was whether the conviction violated the defendant’s right to free speech under the First Amendment. The Court sidestepped any discussion on that issue by reversing for lack of evidence.
Going forward it will obviously be important to present evidence of how the harassment personally impacted the victim. As officers you should always note any evidence that the defendant’s conduct impacted the victim (e.g., change of phone number, three locks on the door…)