Law might complicate stalking case in Kansas

The blinding glare of headlights was fixed in her rearview mirror for at least five minutes before she got a good look at the man who was following her.

What the Overland Park woman saw late Monday night was chilling.

The young man who had been driving behind her since she first encountered him in a grocery store parking lot was now wearing a black ski mask.

“That was a scary moment,” she recounted.

She immediately dialed 911.

The dispatcher told her to drive to the police station, and as she did, the man in the mask followed her turn for turn for several miles until a police car intercepted her pursuer and pulled him over.

Inside his black BMW, officers found a black mask. They also found gloves, a knife, lubrication, a condom, a small amount of marijuana and a pipe, the woman says police told her.

“I lost it when they told me that,” she said. “‘Oh my gosh, what could have happened,’ went through my mind.”

Earlier this week, Johnson County prosecutors charged Eric Lawrence Kaplan, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate and Eagle Scout from Leawood, with stalking.

But some veteran Johnson County lawyers say the case may be difficult to prosecute under the Kansas stalking law.

In order to win a stalking conviction, prosecutors must prove that someone recklessly engaged in a “course of conduct” that targets a specific person and would cause a reasonable person in the same circumstances to fear for their safety.

Under the law, that course of conduct means “two or more acts over a period of time, however short, which evidence a continuity of purpose.”

“The law is somewhat unclear if whether one obvious act of targeting someone meets that definition,” said Scott Toth, a criminal defense attorney and former Johnson County prosecutor.

Defense attorney Carl Cornwell said jurors in stalking cases have to decide whether there were at least two specific acts that include threatening someone’s safety, following them or communicating with them.

The current Kansas stalking law was the result of legislative changes forced after appellate courts found an earlier version unconstitutionally vague, said Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.

Although Howe said he can’t talk about the specifics of the case against Kaplan, he believes the law is sound.

“So far the statute has withstood legal challenge,” he said. “We’re comfortable the current wording will hold up under legal scrutiny.”

Officials said most stalking cases reported to police involve former domestic partners.

Stalking cases involving strangers are rare, and it can be difficult for prosecutors to prove a suspect had criminal intent.

Trey Pettlon, another former prosecutor who now defends people charged with crimes, said a person does not necessarily have to complete a crime to be convicted. But prosecutors do have to show that the defendant had the intent to commit the crime and committed some sort of overt act toward that.

The mask, gloves and other items that authorities say Kaplan possessed, while legal in and of themselves, could constitute circumstantial evidence of criminal intent, he said.

It would be analogous to someone who had items like a pry bar, gloves and a screwdriver and was prowling outside a building being charged with possession of burglary tools, or someone still inside a store caught hiding an item under their shirt being charged with theft, he said.

“This was a similar, although scarier situation,” Pettlon said of the accusations against Kaplan. “You might look at it as very good police work and a very alert person who may have prevented a very serious crime.”

Besides stalking, prosecutors also charged Kaplan with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. All three charges are misdemeanors.

During his first court appearance Tuesday, Kaplan pleaded not guilty. He was released from custody later that day after posting a $1,500 bond.

Court records do not list an attorney for him, and efforts to reach him and his family were not successful.

The woman he allegedly targeted asked that her name not be used for this story. But she has spoken out publicly about what happened because she hopes it might prompt other women to come forward.

“I’m glad I did,” she said.

She has heard from one other woman who had experienced a similar incident several weeks ago and said she would now file a police report. Overland Park police said they are now following up.

The woman involved in this week’s incident said she’s glad she trusted her instincts that night and called police.

“If you find yourself in that situation, don’t hesitate to call 911,” she said.

The experience has left her much more security conscious and wary when she’s out in public.

“The first thing I did the next morning was go out and buy a $15 can of Mace,” she said.