Legislation based on experience of Bucks County family
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Legislation authored by Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-08) to increase penalties related to the stalking of minors passed the House Tuesday. The Combat Online Predators Act [H.R. 4203] provides enhanced criminal penalties for stalkers 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.
“We have no higher responsibility than to protect our kids. 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, the only former FBI Supervisory Special Agent and federal prosecutor in Congress. “The Combat Online Predators Act ensures that, not only are we increasing penalties for these crimes, but we are also requiring federal law enforcement officials to constantly evaluate and update practices to combat this online 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 federal level.”
The legislation was inspired by the story of the Zezzo family of Bucks County, 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.
“This bill is a first and very important step in creating positive change to better protect children against cyberpredators. The technology world has far surpassed our legislation regarding cyberstalking, and the Combat Online Predators Act serves as an immeasurable stepping stone in filling these gaps,” said Erin and Madison Zezzo, mother and daughter impacted by cyber-stalking. “With this Act and the call on our Attorney General and Department of Justice, our family and friends also challenge our state representatives to dive deeply into these laws, identify these holes and plug them before children are put to greater risk. We 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. We hope bringing attention to this critical matter will open conversation between parents and their children about internet safety."
The legislation now awaits action in the Senate before it can be signed into law. It is Fitzpatrick’s twelfth bill that passed the House.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:
Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy (D-FL): “Cyberstalking is a serious threat to the safety of our children and, as a parent, I believe we must do everything we can to stop it. Our bipartisan bill will increase the maximum criminal penalty for stalking and cyberstalking of minors to send a clear signal that this atrocious crime will not be tolerated. It will also enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to better identify and respond to cyberstalking so that parents can have greater peace of mind that their children are safe from predators. I’m encouraged that the House approved our bill today with unanimous support, and I urge the Senate to take it up immediately.”
Judiciary CommitteeChairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA):“I applaud the House of Representatives for approving the Combat Online Predators Act to protect children from cyberstalkers. 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. I commend Congressman Fitzpatrick for his work on the Combat Online Predators Act and call on the Senate to pass it without delay. We must ensure law enforcement has the tools needed to combat this crime.”
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA): “The safety of our children online or out in the world is the primary concern for parents, teachers, and communities. But in today’s ever changing and increasingly digital society children can easily become targeted by predators. Those who prey on children need to know their depraved actions will face the strongest possible consequences. Thanks to the leadership of Representative Fitzpatrick on behalf of his constituents, criminals who target minors in their stalking, both online and in person, can now receive more serious sentences.”
National Center for Victims of Crime: “The National Center for Victims of Crime applauds Congressman Fitzpatrick’s work on 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.” - Mai Fernandez, Executive Director
Association of Prosecuting Attorneys:“One of the most important measures of an effective criminal justice system is how it responds to crimes against its most vulnerable victims. The Combat Online Predators Act will support prosecutors and create safer communities by enhancing the criminal penalties available against those convicted of stalking minors. We applaud Congressman Fitzpatrick’s commitment to this real and pressing criminal justice and community concern.” - David LaBahn, President and CEO