Gwen Neidlinger stood in the dark outside her home on an early morning in June, waiting for her dog to finish doing his business.
She turned around to go back inside and almost bumped into a man standing right behind her.
He stood inches from her face and stared at her, then down at his shirt. He had one hand under it and appeared to be holding something. Then, he looked back at her.
Neidlinger pulled her dog by his leash and started running back to her front door. The man followed her, matching her speed.
She ran across the stoop and slammed the door. A security camera showed the man slowly walking up to the door and waiting there for a few moments before leaving.
Neidlinger immediately called 911. It was 4:13 a.m., and Santa Monica Police Department officers arrived at her apartment on 6th Street between Montana Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. They told her they had located the man, Alfonso Flores (a 35-year-old man from Culver City), and had detained him in a police car. Flores had been released from prison just four days prior.
What the officers didn’t tell Neidlinger is that they released him across the street from her building just ten minutes later.
“I think SMPD left me in more danger than I was while he was chasing me,” Neidlinger said.
After Neidlinger repeatedly insisted upon filing a police report and showed officers surveillance video of the man loitering outside of her door, SMPD put out a warrant for his arrest and took him into custody in October on prowling charges.
While following someone is not illegal unless it happens repeatedly – that qualifies as stalking – prowling, which is defined as lingering on someone’s property, is a misdemeanor offense. The Santa Monica City Attorney’s office dismissed Flores’ case Nov. 15 after finding insufficient evidence for prowling.
This month, another woman walking in the dark near Third Street and Broadway noticed a man following her. Fearful for her safety, she approached a few police officers she saw nearby and pointed out the man.
When the officers spoke to Flores, the same individual that had followed Neidlinger, they found that he was on probation for fraud and searched him. They found that he had stolen someone’s bank card and made purchases with it. He had also taken the person’s prescription pills.
Officers arrested Flores that night, Jan. 3, for identity theft, possession of methamphetamine and possession of a controlled substance without a prescription. His bail was set at $50,000. The arrest was not tied to his behavior toward the woman, just to the theft and drugs.
The law protects individuals from being repeatedly followed with malicious intent. However, that definition is tied to the repetition of the same action with the same individual, not the repetition of the same action with many individuals.
“Stalking needs to be ongoing or continuous, and there’s nothing in the law that accounts for following multiple people,” said deputy city attorney Jenna Grigsby-Taggart.
Following multiple women might not qualify as a crime alone but police are not without a remedy in such cases, said Peter Johnson, a lecturer in the UCLA School of Law.
“Depending on the circumstances, police could investigate if the person has violated statutes on disorderly conduct, loitering, creating a public nuisance and a variety of other things,” he said.
Criminal statutes that cover these types of behaviors focus on the intent of the accused, however, and what one person might call following another person might call walking down the street. It would be crucial to balance the rights of the accused with the right of individuals to their privacy, Johnson said.
“Something that appears to be antisocial may not be a crime, so the police have a responsibility to balance what might be a criminal act as opposed to someone just looking at a homeless person and saying they feel threatened,” he said.