In the waning days of its 2020 regular session, Minnesota’s legislature passed a bill to strengthen the state’s harassment statute.
The overhaul became a priority for legislators after the state Supreme Court struck down a portion of the existing statute last fall. In that decision, justices concluded that the threshold for harassment was so low that it posed a danger to the First Amendment. The decision concerned legislators and victims advocates groups. In addition to greatly hindering the state’s ability to hold harassers and stalkers accountable, they feared that the decision could lead what was left of the law to be struck from the books entirely.
The newly enacted bill is designed to accommodate those concerns while also strengthening protections for victims. Liz Richards, executive director of Violence Free Minnesota, said that legislators were careful to study the court’s ruling to minimize the risk of further court issues.
Under the new law, a person must demonstrate clear intent for their actions to be considered harassment. In addition, their actions must provoke a “reasonable fear of substantial bodily harm,” or “reasonably be expected to cause substantial emotional distress.” Richards said that the new law gave legislatures a chance to clean up even those parts of the old law that the court had not touched, and acknowledged that several parts of the law were overly broad. Above all, she said that having a functioning, clear state on harassment can provide crucial protection for victims. Richards noted that in domestic violence homicide cases, over 70% of victims were victims of stalking first.
That’s what happened in 2016, when Barb Larson, a Faribault Area Chamber and Commerce and Tourism employee was gunned down at her workplace. The shocking murder/suicide was committed by her ex-husband, who had previously stalked her.
Almost immediately after the statute was struck down, an individual who had been convicted under the old statute had his case dismissed and was released. To prevent more perpetrators from ending up on the streets, legislators knew they needed to act fast.
“We anticipated that could happen in so many cases,” Richards said. “That’s why it’s so important to have a stalking/harassment statute that can be used when it’s needed.”
Erica Staab, Executive Director of Rice County’s HOPE Center, expressed gratitude for the legislature’s swift action. She said that some victims who have turned to the HOPE Center for help have been negatively impacted by the statute’s nullification.
With coronavirus sweeping the globe, the legislation is turning out to be particularly timely. As the pandemic restricts travel, shutters schools and limits the ability of people to go to work, law enforcement and victims advocates, like those at the HOPE Center, have seen an uptick in reported domestic violence.
Staab said that the HOPE Center’s safe line has seen a dramatic increase in calls. Fortunately, the nonprofit, which is devoted to helping victims of sexual and domestic abuse, has had enough resources to keep up with rising needs.
“We’ve been able to work with partners to make sure they have what they need, and will continue to do so,” she said.
Among the items included in the $2 trillion CARES Act is $45 million to cover temporary housing, counseling and other supportive services, with an additional $1.5 million earmarked for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Facilities throughout Minnesota will receive approximately $670,000 of funding. Staab said she doesn’t yet know how much funding, if any, the HOPE Center might receive under the bill.