Texas appeals court rejects constitutional challenge to anti-stalking law

Monday, March 6, 2000

A Texas anti-stalking law passed in 1997 sufficiently defines what conduct is prohibited and does not unconstitutionally chill the exercise of First Amendment rights, a state appeals court has ruled.

Nathan Clements was charged with violating the state’s anti-stalking law for following his estranged wife to her home and to her work. According to court records, he also made repeated phone calls to her.

In December 1996, Jennifer Clements charged that her estranged husband chased her in his car and caused her to fear for her life. She also alleged that he had chased her in the parking lot of her apartment complex.

In March 1999, a trial judge convicted Clements of violating the state’s anti-stalking law. The judge sentenced him to 12 months’ probation.

On appeal, Clements argued, among other points, that his conviction should be reversed because the anti-stalking law was unconstitutional.

He challenged the statute on two grounds. First, he argued that the statute was unconstitutionally vague because a reasonable person would not know what conduct violates the law. Next, Clements contended that the statute was too broad and would chill the exercise of activity protected by the First Amendment.

In a 1993 decision Long v. State, another Texas state appeals court ruled that the state’s anti-stalking law was vague. The 1993 law provided that someone could be convicted of stalking if he or she engaged in “conduct directed specifically toward the other person … that is reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass that person.”

The Texas Legislature adopted a new anti-stalking law in 1997. The current law — under which Clements was prosecuted — eliminated the “annoy, alarm, abuse, torment or embarrass that person” clause.

Instead, the 1997 law provides that someone commits stalking if he or she “causes the other person … to be placed in fear of bodily injury or death.” Under the current law, the fear must also be “reasonable.”

In its Feb. 24 opinion in Clements v. State, the Court of Appeals of Texas affirmed Clements’ conviction. The appeals court noted that the Legislature had changed the statute as a result of the Long decision: “The legislature incorporated many of the suggestions made by the Court of Criminal Appeals in Long v. State.”

“Where First Amendment freedoms are implicated, the law must be sufficiently definite to avoid chilling protected expression,” the court wrote.

The court, however, found that the 1997 law was sufficiently definite and specific enough to let people know what conduct is not allowed. “We find this statute to thoroughly specify what conduct is prohibited and subject to prosecution,” the court wrote.

The court concluded that “the previous vagueness problem no longer exists.”

The appeals court also rejected Clements’ overbreadth claim. He argued that the statute was overbroad because it outlawed his constitutionally protected conduct of attempting to “save” his marriage.

“Here, Nathan was not engaged in constitutionally protected conduct because his conduct placed Jennifer in fear of bodily injury or death,” the court wrote.

The attorneys who handled the case were in court and could not be reached for comment.