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The crime of harassment is any kind of behavior that is unwanted and is intended to annoy, disturb, alarm, torment, upset or terrorize an individual or group.
States have specific laws governing different types of harassment including, but not limited to, stalking, hate crimes, cyberstalking and cyberbullying. In most jurisdictions, for criminal harassment to occur the behavior must present a credible threat to the victim's safety or their family's safety.
Each state has statutes covering specific harassment offenses that are often charged as misdemeanors and can result in fines, jail time, probation, and community service.
There are three categories of internet harassment: Cyberstalking, Cyberharassment, and Cyberbullying.
Cyberstalking is the use of electronic technology such as computers, cell phones and tablets that can access the internet and send emails to repeatedly stalk or threaten physical harm to a person or group. This can include posting threats on social web pages, chat rooms, website bulletin boards, through instant messaging and through emails.
Example of Cyberstalking
In January 2009, Shawn D. Memarian, 29, of Kansas City, Missouri pleaded guilty to cyberstalking by using the Internet - including e-mails and website postings - to cause substantial emotional distress and fear of death or serious bodily injury. His victim was a woman he met online and dated for about four weeks.
Memarian also posed as the victim and posted fake personal ads on social media sites and in the profile described her as sex freak looking for sexual encounters. The posts included her phone number and home address. As a result, she received numerous phone calls from men answering the ad and around 30 men showed up at her home, often late at night.
He was sentenced to 24 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $3,550 in restitution.
Cyberharassment is similar to cyberstalking, but it does not involve any physical threat but uses the same methods to harass, humiliate, slander, control or torment a person.
Example of Cyberharassment
In 2004, 38-year-old James Robert Murphy of South Carolina was sentenced to $12,000 in restitution, 5 years probation and 500 hours of community service in the first federal prosecution of cyberharassment. Murphy was guilty of harassing an ex-girlfriend by sending multiple threatening emails and fax messages to her and to her co-workers. He then began sending pornography to her co-workers and made it appear as if she was sending it.
Cyberbullying is when the internet or interactive electronic technology such as mobile phones is used to harass, insult, embarrass, humiliate, torment or threaten another person. This can include posting embarrassing pictures and videos, sending insulting and threatening text messages, making derogatory public remarks on social media sites, name-calling, and other offensive behavior. Cyberbullying usually refers to minors bullying other minors.
Example of Cyberbullying
In June 2015 Colorado passed the "Kiana Arellano Law" that addresses cyberbullying. Under the law cyberbullying is considered harassment which is a misdemeanor and punishable by fines up to $750 and six months in jail.
The law was named after 14-year-old Kiana Arellano who was Douglas County high school cheerleader and who was being bullied online with anonymous hateful text messages stating that no one at her school liked her, that she needed to die and offering to help, and other vulgar demeaning messages.
Kiana, like many young teenagers, dealt with depression. One day the depression mixed with the non-stop cyberbullying was too much for her to cope with an attempted suicide by hanging herself in the garage of her home. Her father found her, applied CPR until the medical team arrived, but due to the lack of oxygen to Kiana's brain, she suffered severe brain damage. Today she is paraplegic and unable to talk.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 49 states have enacted legislation aimed at protecting students from cyberbullying.
Example of State Harassment Statues
In Alaska, a person can be charged with harassment if they:
- Insult, taunt, or challenge another person in a manner likely to provoke an immediate violent response;
- Telephone another and fail to terminate the connection with intent to impair the ability of that person to place or receive telephone calls;
- Make repeated telephone calls at extremely inconvenient hours;
- Make an anonymous or obscene telephone call, an obscene electronic communication, or a telephone call or electronic communication that threatens physical injury or sexual contact;
- Subject another person to offensive physical contact;
- Publish or distribute electronic or printed photographs, pictures, or films that show the genitals, anus, or female breast of the other person or show that the person engaged in a sexual act; or
- Repeatedly send or publish an electronic communication that insults, taunts, challenges, or intimidates a person under 18 years of age in a manner that places the person in reasonable fear of physical injury.
In some states, it is not only the person making the offensive phone calls or emails that can be charged with harassment but also the person who owns the equipment.
When Harassment Is a Felony
Factors that can change a harassment charge from a misdemeanor to a serious felony include:
- If the person is a repeat offender
- If the person is under a restraining order
- If the harassment is a hate crime