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Iowa law tackles use of GPS for stalking

Bill aims to address growing abuse of GPS devices for violent, controlling purposes

Stephen Mally/The Gazette

State Sen. Liz Mathis speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party Coordinated Office in Cedar Rapids in this June 5, 2014, photo.
Stephen Mally/The Gazette State Sen. Liz Mathis speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party Coordinated Office in Cedar Rapids in this June 5, 2014, photo.
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IOWA CITY — Among the screening questions for new clients at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program’s shelter are a few about cellphones.

Who had access to the phone? Who gave it to you?

DVIP Executive Director Kristie Doser said the reason for the questions are simple — batterers, in an attempt to track their victims, often will add applications to the phone that allow them to follow its owners.

“It’s common for us to see batterers give phones as gifts to victims,” Doser said.

Doser said stalking someone with a phone is frequent enough that all new DVIP clients are asked about their phones.

“That’s how often it’s happening,” she said. “It’s become a regular part of our screening.”

Tracking someone’s whereabouts — whether through smartphone apps or a GPS tracker placed on a vehicle — is just one of the ways batterers can revictimize their partners, Doser said. When batterers threaten that they’ll always know where the victims can be found, it keeps the victims “off balance” and in a “hypervigilant state,” she said.

“It reinforces that sense that you can never escape that person,” Doser said. “You’re always looking over your shoulder.”

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But now a new bill working its way through the Iowa Legislature would penalize anyone who places a GPS tracking device on someone’s vehicle without that person’s consent and “with intent to intimidate, annoy or alarm another person.” Violating the law would be a serious misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

The bill was written by Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Robins.

Mathis said her interest in the measure was born out of separate calls from two constituents — women who were afraid they were being stalked. One believed an ex might have placed a GPS tracking device on her vehicle.

“She asked me if that was illegal,” Mathis recalled. “I started looking up some things about the illegality of it.”

What Mathis found was that while Iowa has harassment laws covering intimidation via electronic communication, there are no measures relating to GPS devices. Legislation as of last autumn had been enacted in New York, and 10 states soon followed, she said.

According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice report, 3.4 million people were victims of stalking over a 12-month period. Thirty-four percent of stalking victims reported being followed or spied on, and one in 13 stalking victims said electronic monitoring was used.

Of those, GPS technology accounted for about a 10th of the stalking cases.

“In New York, there was a woman who was being stalked by her surgeon ex-boyfriend,” Mathis said. “He put this GPS device on her car, found her and killed her.”

Mathis said the bill — which received unanimous approval in the state Senate — wouldn’t affect legal applications of GPS technology, such as farming or parents keeping tabs on their children.

It also will not change things for law enforcement, who are required to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS unit on a suspect’s vehicle.

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Scott Stevens, the Iowa City Police Department’s domestic violence investigator, praised the bill.

“That’s the same language that’s used in the harassment statute,” he said.

“It’s specifically directed at someone trying to harass another person. If it wasn’t spelled out clearly before ... it would be with this bill, and I think it’s great.”

While Stevens said he has not had any cases involving GPS tracking in his past couple of years as the domestic-violence investigator, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. He also has seen how relentless suspects can be in harassing their victims.

Earlier this month, Stevens filed 11 no-contact order violations against 36-year-old Virgil E. Holderness of Iowa City after he reportedly contacted the protected party dozens of times via text messages — including sending 200 messages in a day.

“The suspects I handle are sometimes relentless at following the victim,” Stevens said.

“I’m not sure what it satisfies for them. I think they like to let the victim know they were following them. They like to make a phone call and tell them every stop they made that weekend.”

“A GPS device would be ideal for someone who wanted to do that.”

While Stevens and the DVIP’s Doser applaud the bill, they say it still doesn’t cover all the ways in which technology can be used to victimize someone, especially smartphone technology.

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Doser said that batterers with the capacity to monitor someone else’s phone can use private email, text messages or other potentially damaging information against the victim.

Doser wants law enforcement and the criminal justice system both in Iowa and across the state to do a better job of keeping up with evolving technology.

“I think the biggest thing is ... we need to come up with a way to keep up with technology as a social construct,” Doser said.

“We also know how technology is used for grooming potential victims. We know how technology is used in all sorts of criminal activity.

“Batterers are a good example of someone who exploits (technology) because it’s not being monitored across the scope of our communities,” she added.

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