Bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) to help protect children from cyberstalkers has gained overwhelming approval by the U.S. House of Representatives in a 409-to-2 vote.
The Combat Online Predators Act, H.R.4203, which Rep. Fitzpatrick introduced in November 2017, received House approval on April 10 and now advances to the U.S. Senate for consideration. U.S. Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Don Bacon (R-NE) and Ryan Costello (R-PA) cosponsored H.R. 4203.
“We have no higher responsibility than to protect our kids,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick, a former federal prosecutor and FBI supervisory special agent. “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.”
If enacted, not only would H.R. 4203 guarantee stiffer penalties for cyberstalking crimes, Fitzpatrick said, but the proposal also would require federal law enforcement to continuously evaluate and update practices “to combat this online harassment.”
Specifically, H.R. 4203 would amend Title 18, Section 2261 of the federal criminal code to increase the maximum prison term for a stalking offense if the victim is under 18 years of age, according to the congressional record summary. Additionally, the U.S. Attorney General would be directed to review federal, state and local enforcement efforts to establish best practices for enforcing the bill’s anti-stalking laws, according to the text of H.R. 4203.
“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,” Rep. Fitzpatrick said following the House vote.
H.R. 4203 was inspired by the Zezzo family ordeal in Pennsylvania that began in 2013. Their teenaged daughter was sexually cyberstalked by her best friend’s 51-year-old dad. After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor stalking charge, the Bucks County man was sentenced to five years probation and counseling. But his behavior continued and three years later, when the Zezzo teen received thousands more tweets from him, her family again contacted authorities. Following a police sting, a judge last June sentenced the repeat stalker to serve between 18 months and up to seven years in state prison for felony cyberstalking and ordered him to undergo mental health screenings. The now 55-year-old also is prohibited from accessing social media and from contacting the teen or her family.
“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 Madison Zezzo, who is now 18, and her mother, Erin Zezzo, in a joint statement released by Rep. Fitzpatrick’s office.
The Zezzo family and their friends have challenged Pennsylvania state lawmakers “to dive deeply” into existing stalking laws, identify the holes where criminals get lesser sentences, and proactively plug them before more kids are put at risk, according to their statement.
“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,” the Zezzos said. “We hope bringing attention to this critical matter will open conversation between parents and their children about internet safety.”
Rep. Murphy called on the Senate to immediately take up consideration of H.R. 4203.
“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,” said Rep. Murphy, adding that the proposed bill would 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,” the congresswoman said.
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, applauded House passage of H.R. 4203 and also asked “the Senate to pass it without delay.”
“Too many Americans have become victims of stalking and cyberstalking, especially minors whose lives are increasingly online and on social media,” Goodlatte said.
Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, congratulated Rep. Fitzpatrick for his efforts on H.R. 4203. “Stalking is a crime that affects 7.5 million people annually including children,” Fernandez said. “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.”
David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said how the criminal justice system responds to crimes against the most vulnerable victims is one of the most important measures of its effectiveness.
“The Combat Online Predators Act will support prosecutors and create safer communities by enhancing the criminal penalties available against those convicted of stalking minors,” LaBahn said. “We applaud Congressman Fitzpatrick’s commitment to this real and pressing criminal justice and community concern.”