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‘Serial hugger’ preys on women in Missouri suburb; police stumped on what to charge him with

How would you react if a stranger, pretending to know you, hugged you? (Thinkstock)When is a hug not just a hug? Apparently when it's given under false pretenses by a man pretending to be your long lost neighbour — a man who is actually being investigated by the police.

Such is the case of a 44-year-old Missouri man who has been accused of giving unwanted and unsolicited hugs to at least 36 women in Des Peres, a suburb outside of St. Louis, Missouri, reports ABC News. The unidentified male allegedly approaches women who are alone, often when they're shopping, pretending to know them from a past event or other circumstance.

The women, initially embarrassed for not recognizing the man who has been coined a "serial hugger," become flustered. This is when he moves in for the hug and, in one case, a kiss.

Des Peres police have identified and questioned the man, but prosecutors are trying to figure out whether to charge the "serial hugger".

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Would he be charged if he had pulled these stunts in Canada? And if so, with what? Joshua Sutherland, a lawyer with the Calagry-based firm Walsh LLP, says that without knowing much about the case or the individual involved, it's difficult to say, but he thinks a Canadian "serial hugger" could be charged with assault.

"A person commits an assault against any person when there is force that is intentionally placed upon the other person without their consent," he says. "Perhaps the other argument — on the other side for not charging him — is perhaps the women do consent to it. They don't recall this person or don't know this individual and lean over and hug him as well. I suppose that could be construed as consent, however I would be hard-pressed to believe that any reasonable person would find that to be the case."

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Once an alleged Canadian "serial hugger" has been charged by police, the matter would then fall to the Crown Prosecutor who would decide whether to proceed based on a couple of different factors: Is there reasonable likelihood of conviction? And is it within the public interest?

The Crown will consider several factors, including the suspect's mental capacity, previous criminal record if any, age, maturity and the nature of the crime. Sutherland suggests the Crown may choose to give him a criminal record.

"Perhaps a term of probation, which could involve attending certain courses that his probation officer deems appropriate," says Sutherland. Though the least severe punishment would be having the file withdrawn.

Sutherland thinks a first-time offender may also be asked to participate in a program called AMP (Alternative Measures Program), which is similar to probation in that the program is determined by the probation officer. It could include community service or writing letters of apology to his victims. Upon proof of completion of the program, the matter could then be withdrawn and the alleged "serial hugger" would not have a criminal record.

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