Court tosses man's stalking conviction

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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Simply parking on a public street and watching someone's home doesn't alone fall within the definition of "impermissible" conduct and can't be considered stalking, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In a case of first impression, the appellate panel ruled 2-1 on Donald D. Vanhorn v. State of Indiana, 84-A01-0711-CR-505, overturning the Terre Haute man's conviction for felony stalking. At issue in the case was the interplay between "harassment" and "impermissible contact" and whether enough evidence existed to support a stalking conviction.

Donald VanHorn knew the alleged victim, Robert Franks, from a radio service business where Franks worked and VanHorn was a regular customer. In mid-January 2007, Franks' wife noticed a black sport utility vehicle parked on the opposite side of the street near their home. The same thing happened three more times, and Franks took photos and notified police, though VanHorn never made any type of contact. VanHorn was eventually arrested and was tried on a felony stalking charge, and a jury convicted him in August 2007. He received three years probation and six months home detention.

On appeal, the appellate panel examined Indiana Codes 35-45-10-2 and 35-45-10-3, which focus on harassment and impermissible contact. The latter definition includes knowingly or intentionally following or pursuing the victim, and that part of the statute exempts statutorily or constitutionally protected conduct from the definition of harassment.

The Court of Appeals decided that the evidence was insufficient and the contact in this case wasn't "impermissible."

"If being on a city street is found to be 'impermissible' merely because an individual homeowner did not grant permission, then the victim has been improperly granted power over the defendant that the victim does not possess," Judge Terry Crone wrote, noting that a defendant's due process rights must be safeguarded in a situation where that person is lawfully in a public place and conduct alone is alleged to constitute harassment.

"In other words, when the government prohibits an individual from engaging in otherwise lawful conduct, it is important to provide the accused with notice and an opportunity to be heard," he wrote, adding that a protective order could be issued to declare any type of conduct off-limits.

"We do not mean to suggest that no circumstances exist in which only public sightings may constitute harassment or impermissible contact, but in this case nothing occurred that would remotely indicate to VanHorn that his conduct was impermissible."

Judge Cale Bradford dissented, writing that he is sympathetic to the majority's perspective but that he sees the jury system as an adequate safeguard for preventing unfair convictions for lawful behavior.

"By requiring official proof of 'impermissibility' to satisfy the harassment component, the majority adds an element of proof which the crime of 'stalking,' as defined, does not contain," the judge wrote. ... "Given my confidence in the fact finder's ability to discern 'stalking' from lawful activity, I would not disturb VanHorn's conviction."

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