Combat Online Predators Act Clears US House

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Legislation to enhance federal criminal penalties for adults convicted of cyber-stalking children has been passed to America's President Donald Trump for signature. 

The Combat Online Predators Act seeks to amend the federal criminal code to increase the maximum prison term for a stalking offense by an additional five years if the victim is under 18 years of age. It also requires the attorney general to create a report detailing best practices for the enforcement of state, local, tribal, and federal stalking laws in the United States.

The bill was first introduced in November 2017. It was passed by the House of Representatives in 2018 with broad bipartisan support and unanimously passed in a modified form by the Senate. 

However, time ran out before the House could vote on the altered version of the bill and send it to the president for signature. 

The bill was subsequently reintroduced and passed by the Senate last October. Now it is finally with the president after winning the approval of the House of Representatives last week

Under current law, it is a federal crime for an individual to harass or intimidate another individual, in person or online, in a way that causes them to fear that they may be physically harmed or places them in significant emotional distress. 

The maximum criminal penalty for stalking is five years in prison. A ten-year custodial sentence may be imposed if the defendant causes serious physical injury to the victim or uses a dangerous weapon. 

If signed into law, the bill would increase the maximum penalties for stalking to 10 years and 15 years, respectively. Adult defendants convicted of stalking a minor could be incarcerated for a total of 15 years.

The bill was inspired by the experience of the Zezzo family of Pennsylvania, whose teenaged daughter was cyber-stalked on social media by the 51-year-old father of one of her friends. 

"As families have navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic, children are spending more time online and in front of a web cam,” Tony Zezzo, father of the victim, told Times Leader.

“Individuals who stalk and cyber-stalk our children are taking advantage of these new tools and opportunities to exploit children. This legislation has never been more critical than it is today."

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