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Politics

Stalking Case in Washington County Prompts Effort to Hike Penalties

AUGUSTA, Maine - A bill before the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee would make stalking a group of people a felony crime in Maine. State Sen. David Burns, a Whiting Republican, is the measure's sponsor. The bill is a response to an ongoing stalking problem in one Washington County school district.

A.O.S. 96 includes schools in Machias and 10 other towns. Scott Porter is the district's superintendent. The trouble, says Porter, began when a local man with a history of mental instability began posting copies of his writings, a so-called manifesto, on the grounds of nearby Washington Academy, a private academy in East Machias.

Porter worked at the school for 15 years as an administrator. "They did a trespass order," Porter says, "and he blamed me for that trespass order because I used to work there."

The man began sending violent letters to Porter. "You will be my first spiritual kill," he wrote in one. The man sent threatening letters to Porter's wife and 17-year-old daughter. Porter eventually pressed charges. But under current law, he says, the penalties for stalking just aren't strong enough.

"Honestly, it's just not worth it to go into a court room and go through what you have to go through and put your family and everybody through it, when they're put away for less than a year," he says.

Porter says the man has gone on to stalk groups of students in the schools in his district. "Currently, he's targeting two high school students connected to my family, that's related to me. He can just go in that area that the police will say, 'We can't do anything about it.' This individual, and I think other ones, just don't get it. They don't learn the lesson because the punishment isn't harsh enough, in my opinion."

State Sen. David Burns, who spent 24 years as an officer with the Maine State Police, hopes to change that. "I believe increasing the level of these crimes to a felony, when the offender continues to violate the same laws, will give more opportunity for intervention of mental illness, as well as provide more protection for the public," Burns says.

Under Burns's bill, it would take only one prior conviction for stalking to escalate the punishment an offender would face. A subsequent conviction of individual stalking would carry a minimum sentence of one year in jail. A second conviction for group stalking would carry a minimum of two years.

John Pelletier is chair of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission. The commission, he says, favors making a second offense a class C felony, but "we are against mandatory minimum sentences," he says.

Pelletier says mandatory minimums can result in injustice in individual cases. Judges, he says, should be able to particularize a sentence to the facts of the case and the individual before the court.