WASHINGTON, D.C. – Legislation authored by Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-08) to increase penalties related to the stalking of minors unanimously passed the House Judiciary Committee Thursday. The Combat Online Predators Act [H.R. 4203] provides enhanced criminal penalty for stalkers of minors cyber-stalking under Title 18 Section 2261 by up to five years if the victim is a minor. Furthermore, the legislation calls for the Attorney General and Department of Justice to produce an evaluation of Federal, State, and local efforts to enforce laws relating to stalking and identify and describe elements of these enforcement efforts that constitute best practices.
The legislation was inspired by the story of the Zezzo family of Bucks Co., PA whose teenaged daughter was cyber-stalked by a friend’s father on social media. Despite the stalking being sexual in nature, the then-51-year-old stalker pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor stalking charge and was sentenced to probation and counseling. Three years later, in 2016, the same stalker began making contact again. This time, he was arrested in a sting by local police and sentenced to between 18 months and seven years in a state prison.
“Sitting with the Zezzo family, I saw the pain in their eyes. After hearing of the disturbing story of cyberstalking endured by this young girl and her family for years, I knew something needed to be done. We must do everything we can to forcefully respond to egregious instances of stalking and cyberstalking, especially when committed against minors – the most vulnerable among us,” said Fitzpatrick, a former FBI Supervisory Special Agent and federal prosecutor. “The Combat Online Predators Act ensures that, not only are we increasing penalties for these crimes, but also requiring federal law enforcement officials to constantly evaluate and update practices to combat this digital harassment. There is still work to be done at the state level, but today’s passage shows we are serious about making these needed changes at the national level.”
“The Combat Online Predators Act is a change to our legislation that is long overdue and I commend Congressman Fitzpatrick for listening to our family's horrible experiences and taking immediate action to protect all children going forward," said Erin and Tony Zezzo, parents of the victim. "It is our belief that the technology age that we live in today can be a great asset to all of us if used appropriately. But as with anything, there are individuals that abuse it, and in our case, use it for their own sexual pleasure against a child. The man who victimized our daughter began his quest in 2012 and was 37 years older than her. He created a three-year plan to be with her, marry her and bear his children, posting daily about his intentions, and made no secret that he was coming to her on her 18th birthday, all while under probation for stalking her at the age of 13. It was by luck we found all of these posts in September 2016 but wasn’t until November 2016 that this man was arrested. He opened multiple social media accounts, all anonymous, within weeks his probation in 2013 and began his hunt for our daughter. He knew every aspect of our daughter's life, even when her accounts were private. He used her friends accounts and their friends-friends accounts to search for anything related to her. This perpetrator hid behind social media and posted over 15,000 times, detailing what he wanted to do to her and how they would be forever together. He insisted that no one would ever stop him from being with her.
"The technology world has far surpassed our legislation regarding cyberstalking and cyberpredators and the Combat Online Predators Act serves as a immeasurable stepping stone in filling these gaps. With this Act and the call on our Attorney General and Department of Justice, my family and friends also challenge our state representatives to dive deeply into these laws, identify these holes and plug them before our children are put to greater risk. I know at a State level where these laws failed our family and will be willing to speak about these specifics if it helps just one child from being harmed."
What others are saying about the Combat Online Predators Act:
- “As parents, we would do anything to keep our children safe, whether they’re in the schoolyard or on the internet,” said Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), co-sponsor of the measure. “This bill will send a clear message that we will not tolerate anyone who stalks or preys on minors. I’m proud that we’ve advanced bipartisan legislation to increase the maximum criminal penalty for this heinous crime and help provide some peace-of-mind to families across the country.”
- “The National Center for Victims of Crime applauds Congressman Fitzpatrick’s introduction of the Combat Online Predators Act. Stalking is a crime that effects 7.5 million people annually including children. In today’s age where children can be stalked both in person and online, we must ensure that our laws provide real justice for our most vulnerable victims,” said Mai Fernandez, Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
- “The advent of the Internet and advancement in technology has improved all of our lives but it has also provided stalkers with new ways to prey upon innocent victims. Too many Americans have become victims of stalking and cyberstalking, especially minors whose lives are increasingly online and on social media,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). “The Combat Online Predators Act provides law enforcement new tools to protect our nation’s children from cyber-predators and I thank Congressman Fitzpatrick for his work on this bill.”
The measure is supported by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.