DC COURT OF APPEALS REVERSAL: DC STALKING STATUTE INTERPRETATION

The DC Court of Appeals in Coleman v. U.S., decided on March 7, 2019, reversed an attempted stalking conviction as it analyzed further and defined the DC Stalking Statute and the requisite sufficiency of evidence to withstand a conviction.

Coleman essentially argued on appeal that the government failed to prove that he possessed the requisite mental state in that he should have known a reasonable person in the complainant’s circumstances would fear for her or another’s safety, or feel seriously alarmed, disturbed, or frightened.  Or suffer emotional distress in at least two of the occasions that allegedly comprised his course of conduct.

The DC Stalking Statute provides that: a person commits the crime of stalking when he or she purposefully engage[s] in a course of conduct directed at a specific individual:

(1) With the intent to cause that individual to feel seriously alarmed;

(2) That the person knows would cause that individual reasonably to feel seriously alarmed; or

(3) That the person should have known would cause a reasonable person in the individual’s circumstances to feel seriously alarmed.

The Statute defines to engage in a course of conduct as meaning that on two or more occasions to:

  • Follow, monitor, place under surveillance, threaten, or
  • Communicate to or about another individual or to engage in certain other statutorily specified conduct.

The Court of Appeals determined that combining and considering the definition of course of conduct as interpreted by the elements of the Stalking Statute makes it unlawful for a person, on two or more occasions, to follow, monitor, place under surveillance, threaten, or communicate to or about another individual, with the intent to cause that individual to experience fear, serious alarm, or emotional distress.

Thus, substituting “to engage in a course of conduct” with its statutory definition makes clear, at least with respect to intentional stalking, that the government must prove both the act and the intent for at least two separate incidents.  Here, the government failed to do so.

The government had argued that the trial court should consider the totality of the circumstances and infer therefrom a course of conduct. The appellate court had made it clear that requisite mens rea must be proven in at least two occasions before a conviction may be sustained.

The legislative history of the Stalking Statute supports requiring the government to prove that a defendant possessed the requisite mental state on at least two occasions.   The rule of lenity also provides another interpretive resource in favor of requiring proof in at least two occasions to enable the course of conduct.

In conclusion the court held that a defendant cannot be convicted of stalking absent proof that he or she possessed a culpable mental state (an intentional, knowing, or “should have known” mental state) during at least two of the occurrences that comprise the course of conduct.

Refer to our DC Criminal Lawyer page for more information on this topic.

Categories: Criminal Defense.