The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday that repeatedly honking a vehicle horn while driving by a residence is not stalking.

The decision threw out a relief from abuse order issued earlier this year in Bennington family court. The defendant had been involved in a long-running dispute with his sister, according to court records, during which “defendant, by his own admission, drove by plaintiff’s house and honked, in short beeps, to show his annoyance at plaintiff’s actions.”

This happened more than 10 times before the plaintiff sought the order, according to the decision, which was initially granted on the basis that the defendant’s actions constituted stalking. The defendant appealed, arguing that the legal definition of stalking was “acts ... in which a person follows, monitors, surveils, threatens or makes threats.”

While the lower court had found that the trips past the house constituted surveillance because it was “something in which a person makes clear, to the other person, that I’ve just been by your place . . . and possibly seen you.” The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that the lower court found that the defendant did not intentionally drive past the plaintiff’s house and did not necessarily know whether the plaintiff was home.

“The plain meaning of surveillance requires, at a minimum, the intent to closely watch or carefully observe a person or place,” the decision reads. “None of the trial court’s findings indicate that defendant intended to, or in fact did, closely watch or carefully observe plaintiff when he drove by her home and honked his horn. The trial court found that defendant did not intentionally drive past plaintiff’s home and did not necessarily know whether plaintiff was home when he drove by and honked. From these findings, there is no evidence that defendant was closely watching or carefully observing plaintiff.”

Rep. William Notte, R-Rutland, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Legislature has been working to tighten up the statute governing relief from abuse orders, having just closed a loophole in which emergency orders expire at the time the hearings on them are scheduled and new orders don’t take effect until served on defendants.

“We had people who would blow off the court hearing, the abuse prevention order went away, and then they would avoid police so the new order wouldn’t be served on them,” Notte said.

Notte said the committee’s work thus far had focused on the law as it applies to romantic partners, but he thought family situations merited attention and there needed to be a recognition of the mental toll the sort of harassment described in the Supreme Court case can cause.

“Someone can commit very little of their physical time to harassment and keep someone in a state of mental panic 24 hours a day,” he said.

gordon.dritschilo @rutlandherald.com

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