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What is Harassment?
Criminal harassment is categorized as a series of unwanted offensive, annoying, or threatening actions and behaviors repeatedly directed at a specific person. While the exact definitions and qualifying conduct will vary based on each state’s laws, generally the target of the alleged harassment must have a genuine, reasonable fear that their safety, or the safety of someone close to them, is in danger in order to meet the standards of a criminal harassment case.
Harassing behavior can included incessant communications through:
- Unwanted phone calls
- Text messages
- Cyber channels like email, social media accounts, blogs, and forums
- Letters and packages
- Face-to-face comments and confrontations
It can also include physical interactions like:
- Nonconsensual touching
- Crowding someone’s personal space
- Leering or menacing stares, facial expressions, and gestures
Most cases are handled in state courts, but crimes that involving use of the U.S. Postal Service or online communication with someone in a different state can be tried in federal courts instead.
How Does the Court Prove Harassment
Proving harassment is a complicated matter; many actions that, taken together, could be considered harassment are legal in certain contexts, or for a limited period of time. Arguing with someone and exchanging harsh words may not rise to illegal behavior, but if it leads to recurrent, unwelcome contact or includes serious threats, it may cross the line into unlawful conduct.
The prosecution will usually need to prove several elements to make a case for criminal harassment.
- The alleged harasser must have knowingly and intentionally engaged in the offensive, distressing, or threatening conduct on multiple occasions.
- The alleged harasser must have completed these actions with the intent to cause the target’s emotional distress, fear, and discomfort.
- The target must have felt afraid of the alleged harasser’s actions
- The target’s emotional distress must be reasonable under the circumstances.
These are often challenging elements to prove definitively, so the court will look for evidence to support the harasser’s intent and the victim’s emotional reaction. Statements the harasser made that demonstrate they knew their conduct was unwanted could be admitted into evidence, which could be done through copies of messages the harasser sent or witness testimony. Records of the victim asking for the behavior to stop could be used as well.
What are the Penalties for Harassment?
Because cases of criminal harassment can vary greatly, the possible penalties for a conviction can, too. Cases can range from low-grade misdemeanors that may carry prison sentences up to a year or a $1,000 fine, to felonies with up to ten years and thousands of dollars in fines. The type of charge and potential penalty will depend on the laws in your jurisdiction, but there are several common aggravating factors that could have an effect as well. Prior harassment convictions, exceptionally egregious threats, or harassing someone in violation of a restraining order could all heighten the criminal charges and lead to harsher consequences.
What Does a Restraining Order Do?
People who feel they’re being harassed by someone else may seek a restraining order against the person harassing them. A restraining order is a mandate from the court that puts restrictions on a person’s contact with someone else. Typically, they forbid the subject of the order from contacting the person who sought the order or requiring them to stay a certain physical distance away at all times. Restraining orders may be granted temporarily until a more in-depth case is presented, or they could be have long-term time limits or may even be permanent.
Violating the terms of a restraining order can exacerbate existing criminal charges, or add new ones entirely. Restraining orders usually show up on background checks, like for job or housing applications. People under a restraining order typically can’t access firearms and may be prevented from getting or retaining a firearms license.
How Can a Harassment Defense Attorney Help?
Harassment charges are serious, and the cases can be hard to assess. A criminal defense attorney can help you analyze the facts and evidence of your case to craft the best defense for you. An experienced defense lawyer who knows the court system well can file paperwork and handle other technical, procedural aspects of the case, as process mistakes can permanently damage your defense.
In many cases, a defense attorney can help negotiate for lesser charges or identify errors in the opposing side’s case that prevents it from moving forward at all. Harassment defense attorneys can also help fight against restraining orders to get them removed or to alter the conditions.