Legal Options to Stop Exes from Stalking or Harassment
Tech advances make it easier for them, but New York laws are on your side
on April 2, 2019
Updated on March 21, 2022
A New York couple was in the middle of a divorce when the custody dispute got messy. Early in the process, she grew suspicious. Every time she got in her car, she felt like she was being followed. So she took the car to a mechanic and, sure enough, a magnetic GPS device was attached.
“It’s not a super-unusual thing these days,” says Danielle R. Petitti, a family law attorney at Fersch Petitti. “We’ve had this happen in at least a handful of cases, and in some we litigated, we were able to successfully get orders restraining the behavior.”
The Rise of Cyberstalking with Former Partners
Couples going through a divorce are increasingly turning to GPS, spyware, and formerly shared devices and accounts. Sometimes it’s to support their cases; sometimes to stalk and harass.
“We have seen scenarios where the other spouse knows they were at our office and will be abusive when they return home, start to move money and install spyware on their phone,” says Alexandra Maxwell, a family law attorney at Nolletti Law Group in White Plains.
This is why many attorneys today partner with digital forensic services. “We’re very careful about protecting attorney-client privilege,” Maxwell says. “What we tell clients to do is to get a burner phone, or even just a flip phone, for talking to us. We also ask them to open a new email account. That way, we can know the other spouse isn’t getting in. We do this right from the initial consultation.”
Maxwell and Petitti also encourage clients to deactivate devices from formerly shared accounts. “People sometimes don’t realize they’re still sharing family accounts linked to multiple devices, which allows the other to access their emails and text messages. In these instances, the other spouse doesn’t even have to use spyware or traditionally ‘break’ into an account or device; they can just get access to it by signing onto a device in their control. We advise clients to change their passwords and their security questions as well,” Petitti says. “When we have concerns that a client is being surveilled, we refer them to security tech companies to do sweeps of their apartment for listening devices, and will also help them with computer and device security. The problem with this, as you might imagine, is you need some financial resources to hire these kinds of people.”
How Court Orders Can Come Into Play
Such precautions are one way to protect yourself; another is through the court system. “For relief in New York, you can seek an order of protection, and/or seek to have the court issue an order restraining the other spouse from certain behaviors, such as tracking or surveillance,” Petitti says. “To obtain an order of protection, you must set forth a family offense, such as multiple incidents that may rise to the level of harassment or stalking. In this instance, however, it is not enough to set out one or two instances; generally, you must establish a pattern of illegitimate behavior.”
In extreme harassment cases, Maxwell says, one instance may be enough to secure court-ordered protection: “We have a client right now whose husband sent her a text message where he said, ‘I feel like I want to hurt you.’ We went immediately to family court to keep him away from her and got an order for protection in a matter of hours.”
These technologies are also used by family law attorneys to gather facts about the other spouse. “In New York, it’s legal to put a GPS tracking device on a car that’s registered to you, so we’ve used them for fact-finding,” Maxwell says.
Maxwell says clients have carried mobile cameras and voice-activated recorders as means of protection—especially if they believe there’s a likelihood of being accused of doing something wrong. It’s how the technology is used—the intent—that makes all the difference. Maxwell uses private investigators to install and monitor GPS.
The practice of divorce will continue to change with the technology. But, Maxwell says, it’s not always for the worse. She recalls a case about a decade ago in which a victimized spouse came to her for a divorce and was scared her husband might stalk and harass her. “We didn’t have as many tools to protect her back then,” she says. “There’s a lot we can do to be proactive now.”
For more information on this area, see our overview of family law, or reach out to a family law attorney to explore options such as a restraining order, protective order, or other legal action—especially if you’re a victim of stalking, physical abuse or unwanted contact.