WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, December 8th, 2020, after a years-long fight, criminals who prey on and stalk children will face longer federal jail sentences.
Led by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Stephanie Murphy (FL-07), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), the bipartisan and bicameral Combat Online Predators Act is now heading to the president’s desk for his signature. The legislation enhances federal criminal penalties for stalkers by up to five years if the victim is a minor, and calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate federal, state, and local efforts to enforce stalking laws and identify enforcement best practices. The bill passed the Senate last October, and was approved by the House today.
The Combat Online Predators Act 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.
“We have no higher responsibility than to protect our children. Cyberstalking is a serious crime that needs to be met with stricter penalties and more cooperation among law enforcement agencies. 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,” said Fitzpatrick. “The Combat Online Predators Act is the first step in making the internet a safer environment for all users, especially the most vulnerable among us. I am incredibly proud to see our legislation pass both chambers and head to the President’s desk to become law.”
“As the mother of two young children, I know we have no more important responsibility than protecting our kids from adults who seek to harm them," said Murphy. "I'm proud our bipartisan bill will soon become law. It will help deter adults from stalking children and ensure those who do commit this terrible crime receive the punishment they deserve.”
“House passage of the Combat Online Predators Act speaks to the remarkable dedication of the entire Zezzo family for keeping children safe and ensuring there are strong penalties for monsters who stalk and cyberstalk children,” said Senator Toomey. “Madison and her parents, Erin and Tony, deserve our gratitude for helping get this legislation through Congress, and I look forward to the president signing it into law.”
“Today is an important day in our Nation’s endless fight to better protect our children and curtail predatory behavior. I am pleased that the House passed the Combat Online Predators Act today and I am grateful to the Zezzo family for their tireless advocacy of this important legislation," said Senator Casey. "This bipartisan bill will give judges additional tools to ensure that perpetrators who stalk or cyberstalk children are held accountable with serious penalties. I urge the President to sign Combat Online Predators swiftly into law so that we can continue the fight to keep our children safe from predatory behavior.”
“Our family is so glad the Combat Online Predators Act has made it through Congress,” said Erin and Tony Zezzo. “As families have navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic, children are spending more time online and in front of a webcam. Individuals who stalk and cyberstalk our children are taking advantage of these new tools and opportunities to exploit children. This legislation has never been more critical than it is today. Our hope is that this legislation is the first of more changes to our cyberstalking laws that will help prevent such heinous crimes. We appreciate the bipartisan work of Senators Toomey and Casey and Representatives Fitzpatrick and Murphy.”
This bill 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.
Fitzpatrick has consistently advocated for increased protections, support, and assistance for stalking victims and domestic violence survivors. In September of 2018, Fitzpatrick and Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY-21) introduced the Violence Against Women Extension Act. In March of 2019, Fitzpatrick and Rep. Karen Bass (CA-37) introduced H.R. 1585, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. In January of 2020, Fitzpatrick and Murphy introduced H.Res. 187, designating January 2020 as National Stalking Awareness Month to raise awareness on the dangers of stalking and educate Americans about stalking prevention. In April of 2020, Fitzpatrick, Rep. Katherine Clark (MA-05), Rep. Vern Buchanan (FL-16), and Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45) sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Calif., urging leadership to include $4 million funding in the next COVID-19 package to help domestic violence victims and their pets.