Harassment is a pattern of certain offensive or intimidating behaviors that a person commits with the goal of making another person feel afraid or uncomfortable. But it can be difficult to recognize and understand; laws often lack definite guidelines for identifying when an individual’s behavior crosses the line from awkward or malicious interactions into harassment.
Criminal harassment charges are mostly dictated by state, with some applicable federal guidelines, which can impact the limits of the law and the possible penalties if you’re convicted. Be sure to look for information specific to your state, or request clarification from a local criminal defense attorney if someone accuses you of a harassment crime.
Criminal harassment charges require the prosecution to prove that you engaged in a series of aggressive or annoying acts with the intent to disturb, annoy, or abuse someone else. Harassing behavior can take the form of a threat, repeated phone calls to an individual (particularly in the middle of the night), following or stalking, offensive speech, and engaging in unwanted physical contact with a person without their consent. Harassment legal charges often come up in domestic violence cases, but are not strictly limited to abuse between intimate partners.
This differs from issues of civil harassment, which often includes a victim being routinely harassed at work, as outlined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Often, the victim must be a member of a designated social class and the alleged harassment would need to relate to their status.
As communicative technologies advance, so do laws that govern those technologies. Many states have adapted by including language and examples of cybercrimes in criminal harassment statutes. Cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and doxxing, for example, may fall under the virtual-harassment umbrella.
As with more conventional means of harassment, defining and identifying online harassment requires patterns of specific behaviors, or repeating a certain act. As such, whether or not a person’s conduct could be considered cyber harassment is not always clear cut; such harassment charges may cite conduct like the sending of numerous, unwanted, emails or private messages, creating false social media accounts to bypass victims’ privacy or blocking settings, and making public posts on blogs and online forums, when done with the requisite intent to cause some type of harm or distress.
Penalties for breaking harassment laws often include jail time or fines, dependent on how the crime of harassment is classified in your jurisdiction and how many harassment cases you’ve already faced in court. If a harassment charge is part of a domestic violence case, that could increase sentencing as well.
In Texas, for example, where harassment crimes are Class B misdemeanors, you could face jail time of up to 180 days or a fine of $2,000 if it’s your first harassment offense. If it’s your second conviction, it moves to a Class A punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
On the other end of the spectrum you have states like Massachusetts, where acts of harassment are misdemeanor crimes that could require up to two-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 if it’s your first case, and a maximum sentence up to 10 years in state prison for a subsequent case.
But when does unwanted contact become frequent or severe enough to be a crime? While some statutes will give a baseline, often the court must decide. The court will look at criminal harassment cases individually and determine how inappropriate your actions were and if those actions caused the victim alleged harm. Following those determinations, they’ll consider if a “reasonable person” receiving the same kind of treatment would feel annoyance, fear, or other forms of emotional distress sufficient enough for conviction.
Because harassment charges may carry severe penalties, you’ll need to prepare a strong criminal defense for your case. Reaching out to a local, qualified criminal defense attorney for legal advice could help you understand the law in your state and your legal rights. For example, not all unwanted communication is against the law. But, it can be a fine line between exercising your legitimate first amendment right to free speech and an alleged act of harassment.
Many attorneys will offer a free consultation to help you understand the severity of the charges and strength of your defense before you proceed. During a consultation, any communication between you and the lawyer will create an attorney client privilege that bars that attorney from sharing information about your case, even if you don’t end up hiring them.
Some attorneys may further focus in another individual area of the law relevant to your case, like domestic violence law; if your harassment charges are part of a domestic violence case, it could raise the threat that you’re charged with a felony.
If your case does go to trial, having the right attorney on your side can help protect your interests, including compiling evidence, knowing the law, advocating your defense in court, settling pre-trial, or even finding reasonable cause to have the case thrown out entirely.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified harassment lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local harassment attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.