Kansas legislators weigh bills increasing penalties for stalking minors, sexual extortion

By: - January 24, 2021 9:09 am

The House Judicairy Committee, chaired by Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, is considering three bills pertaining to sex crimes. The committee heard testimony on the first two bills Wednesday in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kristyn Antonucci was disturbed when her eldest daughter told her that an elementary school teacher was taking explicit photos of her.

She was even more appalled to find that, despite admitting a sexual fascination with a minor, the teacher faces nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

Former Olathe Public Schools elementary school teacher James Loganbill is accused of reckless stalking. Despite admitting to taking more than 200 pictures of Antonucci’s 10-year-old daughter, Loganbill pleaded not guilty to the charge in November.

Even if he is convicted, reckless stalking is only a misdemeanor in Kansas, so it is only punishable by up to a year in prison.

Antonucci is not waiting around for the outcome of the case to make sure those accused of stalking a minor face harsher repercussions than Loganbill. She testified before legislators Wednesday on a bill that would make it a felony to stalk a child under the age of 16.

“Our children are not meant to be preyed on by pedophiles that consume their innocence for their own sick gratification,” Antonucci said. “We need to send a message to those that prey on our children that behavior like this has no place in our state.”

Advocates of the proposed bill say it would expand on and close a loophole in Jodi’s Law, which broadened the definition of stalking and made it easier to prosecute. It’s one of a handful of bills pertaining to sex crimes the House Judiciary Committee is tackling in the early days of the legislative session.

The current state statute is keeping a predator like Loganbill on the streets, Antonucci said. He is currently out on bail, without an ankle monitor, she said.

Antonucci believes this bill will ensure peace of mind for her family and others who fall victim to the crime.

“At every turn of the process, we were shocked to learn that our children are not fully protected, whether it be similar circumstances, child molestation or assault,” she said. “Passing House Bill 2071, we can begin the process of updating Kansas statute to better prosecute those that violate our children. Enough is enough.”

Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe, who charged Loganbill, testified in support of the measure. He urged legislators to act swiftly in closing this loophole that emboldened Loganbill to commit this act without fear of serious prosecution.

Under current law, there is a requirement that for something to be considered active stalking, the victim must know they are being stalked, Howe said. On top of increasing the penalty for stalking a minor, the bill would eliminate this knowledge requirement.

“How is a child supposed to know they are being stalked?” Howe said. “It just didn’t make sense in our eyes to have that standard.”

While nobody testified in opposition to the bill, Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, expressed doubt the amended law would address all of Antonucci’s fears, specifically when it comes to bail.

Howe said the bill wouldn’t change the bail requirements for Loganbill. While Howe said this is not the objective of the bill, Carmichael disagreed.

“This bill is not going to give these folks what they want because it’s probably, No. 1, not going to substantially change the pretrial determination of the judge,” Carmichael said, “and, No. 2, if the district attorney doesn’t ask for ankle bracelet monitoring, I suspect the judge isn’t going to offer it.”

Another bill seeks to create a new category of crime — sexual extortion.

Sexual extortion, as defined by the bill, is “communicating by any means a threat to injure the property or reputation of a person, commit violence against a person, or distribute an image or video of a person that is of a sexual nature or depicts such person in a state of nudity.”

If the conduct causes a person to engage in sexual activities, the crime would be punishable with a severity level four felony. Otherwise, it would constitute a level seven felony.

The bill also would require the person who commits the crime to register as a sex offender for 15 years if either party is under 18 years of age.

Kate Owen, an attorney for Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, representing Legal Momentum, a women’s legal advocacy group, said these actions are not new but in the digital age are becoming more common.

“Victims of this form of sexual assault suffer harm like that of any other sex crime,” Owen said. “Rising reports of sexual extortion that we hear about are alarming in particular because, like other sex crimes, sexual extortion is likely underreported.”

Greg Smith, special deputy for government affairs with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed the office has experienced an uptick in this type of crime. He said authorities are still able to prosecute under the charge of blackmail, but that is insufficient.

“It’s an easy crime to commit in today’s world,” Smith said. “All it takes is a tablet or cellphone or computer.”

There was no opponent testimony for the bill, although Smith and legislators expressed concern with adding juveniles to the sex offender registry. Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers could work to remedy those concerns when they debate the bill.

Patton introduced a bill on behalf of Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, that would make sexual battery of a spouse illegal.

Kansas law defines sexual battery as “the touching of a victim who is not the spouse of the offender, who is 16 or more years of age and who does not consent thereto, with the intent to arouse or satisfy the sexual desires of the offender or another.”

The bill would remove the spousal exception from state law.

“It will send a positive message to Kansans that the law does protect them, even within abusive marriages,” Parker said. “I think it’s really a little bit of a stain that we haven’t fixed this before now, especially the last few years but even for the couple of decades before that, so I am hopeful that we’ll do the right thing.”

Parker filed the same bill in 2019 and again, through Patton’s committee, in 2020. The bill failed to pass both times despite committee approval and bipartisan support.

He said he is cautiously optimistic the bill will pass through both chambers this session.

“I’m a little bit chastened by the experience of seeing this not become law two years in a row despite its commonsense nature and broad support,” Parker said. “But, you know, it is a committee bill once again. So hopefully that keeps sort of partisan politics that might get in the way of passing a Democratic bill.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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