Utah lawmaker drops contentious bill that would have made it harder for stalking victims to get help

Republican Rep. Candice Pierucci said she will revise HB21 and bring it back next year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci announced on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, that she is dropping her bill, HB21, that would have amended the state statute on stalking.

With two weeks left in the session, a Utah lawmaker is dropping her contentious bill that would have made it harder for stalking victims to get help.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, announced her decision Friday to continue working to refine HB21. The measure has now been formally taken off the voting calendar, and Pierucci said she intends to bring it back next year with revisions.

It’s a rare move from a representative after the bill had already passed out of a House committee early in the session with unanimous support. It was next awaiting a vote on the floor. But it faced significant pushback from the public, including pleas from victims, victim advocates and attorneys.

Pierucci said that feedback led her to table the proposal. “We need more time,” she said on the House floor. “I think it’s really important that we get this right.”

She added: “I’m grateful for the brave individuals who have shared their stories as being victims of stalking and also those who have been on the other side.”

The measure had proposed redefining stalking in state code. Currently, under Utah law, a victim has to show they’ve experienced two or more encounters with a perpetrator that induced fear or caused emotional distress. By meeting that legal definition, a victim can then qualify for a protective order or injunction, and charges can be filed against the assailant.

With HB21, though, a victim would have had to prove more. They would need to show their aggressor had a “continuity of purpose.” That means having proof of a pattern of behavior that the contact was for a consistent reason, with the direct intent to stalk. That puts the burden on the victim to provide more evidence before they can get help.

Overall, Pierucci had said, “it makes the law more targeted” so that people wrongfully accused of stalking aren’t swept up.

She said she felt compelled to push for the stricter definition after a constituent came to her who had been arrested for stalking. The man, she said, went through a bad breakup with his girlfriend. A therapist later told him to send the woman a letter about how he felt, and he did. After that, he also commented on a picture she had posted on social media that included him, directing her to “Please remove.”

Pierucci said the woman went to police with those two incidents, and an officer showed up at the man’s house and booked him into jail on suspicion of stalking.

“It was a traumatic experience for my constituent,” the lawmaker said. She did not disclose the man’s name, so his criminal record could not be verified. Pierucci said the man spent the night in jail but was never charged.

But during the committee hearing on the bill, victims and victim advocates pushed back. One woman said she already hasn’t been able to get help under the state’s current statute after a former partner has repeatedly shown up at her house and her workplace. She said the proposed change would only make the process harder for those who need protection.

Alexandra Merritt, a victim advocate with the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, said there’s concern that stalking can quickly escalate, including to an assault, if the justice system moves too slow. That’s what happened with student-athlete Lauren McCluskey at the University of Utah. She reported to campus police before her 2018 murder that she was being stalked and harassed; they didn’t take her concerns seriously, according to a later independent review, and she was soon after killed by the man she was trying to warn officers about.

Many cases are like that, Merritt said, where a victim is having to bring evidence to police or a judge to try to prove their case alone. The change to require evidence of a “continuity of purpose” would make that even more burdensome, the victim advocate said.

“I see it getting more intense and more violent,” she added. “This does the exact opposite of what our victims need.”

She acknowledged that the case Pierucci referenced as the basis for the bill was unfortunate. But, Merritt said, she believes it does prove that the current system already works and the accused wasn’t charged. “And that’s just one case,” she said, adding there are hundreds of victims who don’t get the help they need.

New technology, too, Merritt believes is making it easier for people to be stalked. Stalking cases are increasing across Utah’s colleges.

Pierucci said Friday that after reviewing that data and more on how few criminal cases of stalking result in a conviction, she no longer felt comfortable moving forward with the bill as is.

“It’s become clear in the discussions on this that this is not the policy that fits it directly,” she added.

The lawmaker said she’d work to address concerns with the bill in the interim. In the meantime, she is continuing to move forward this session with a proposal to require all police officers be trained to recognize the warning signs of domestic violence, including stalking.

That measure, HB301, also instructs the Utah Department of Public Safety to specifically track cases of stalking across the state, which it currently does not do. That bill passed unanimously in committee Monday.