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Workplace harassment is a serious issue, but it usually is not a matter for the police to investigate. States have criminal statutes that forbid certain types of harassment, especially when serious threats of harm are made. Sometimes the same or similar behavior could be addressed in either civil or criminal court. This article defines harassment and outlines some of the criminal penalties and civil remedies for ending harassing behavior.

Criminal Harassment Defined

Harassment that reaches the level of a crime varies slightly by state, but it generally entails:

  • Targeting someone
  • With behavior meant to alarm, annoy, torment, or terrorize, and
  • Creating reasonable fear in the victim for their safety or the safety of their family or property

Criminal harassment targets a specific person, for example, an ex-spouse. Though, any person could be the target of harassment: a current or former partner, a coworker, a neighbor, or even a stranger. Additionally, harassment could take many forms, such as online harassment, sexual harassment, threats, or stalking. Sometimes it can include a threat of damage to the victim's property, home, or car.

Stalking and Menacing

Interstate stalking is a federal crime. At the state level, "stalking" may be a separate crime, or harassment and stalking may be covered by the same statute.

Stalking refers to an intentional pattern of malicious and repeated conduct that causes the victim to feel fear for their safety or their family's safety. Examples of stalking include:

  • Frequent unwanted phone calls and text messages at all hours
  • Following a person, repeatedly showing up at the same place as the victim
  • Tracking a person with an electronic device
  • Leaving threats, notes, or gifts for a person at their home, in their car, at their desk
  • Vandalizing a person's property

Some states punish stalking as a form of "menacing." Menacing is an action that causes reasonable fear in the victim. Menacing, however, can be a single act, such as brandishing a weapon. Stalking is a repetitive pattern of behavior.

Whether and how states draw lines between harassment, menacing and stalking varies greatly. To see how your state defines these crimes, see state stalking laws.


Federal law makes it a crime to communicate a threat to kidnap or physically harm someone across state lines. This includes most internet communications, which typically travel through networks or servers that comprise interstate commerce.

Many states have revised their harassment and stalking laws to include electronic communications. "Cyberstalking" refers to stalking using electronic communications: the internet, email, text messages, social networks. Some states punish cyberstalking as the improper use of computers or electronic communications networks. In a criminal case involving cyberstalking, the issue of whether there was a legitimate reason for a communication between the two parties can be a factor.

Sexual Harassment

Harassment of a sexual nature is commonly known to be a problem workplaces, but sometimes sexual harassment can include behaviors that are technically crimes. While unwanted sexual advances and requests for dates are usually best taken up with management, groping or fondling could be considered assault and investigated by police. Furthermore, if workplace harassment leads to stalking outside the workplace, it could cross the line into criminal harassment.

Prosecuting Harassment

Harassment cases will be handled differently depending on whether they are heard in criminal or civil court.

Civil Cases: Many harassment cases actually begin in civil courts. Annoying and unwanted communications, usually in the midst of a break-up, lead the targeted party to seek a protection order or a no-contact order (different states use different terms). In this non-criminal context, the victim basically sues the harasser in civil court, who will have an opportunity to explain why such an order should not be put in place.

Criminal Case: Violation of an order from a civil court will lead to a criminal case, but that is not necessarily a prerequisite to prosecution. If there is probable cause to believe that harassment has occurred, police can obtain an arrest warrant right away. In some states, before criminal charges can be brought, local laws require that the offender has been previously warned by police or officials to cease the harassing conduct.

Harassment charges are typically misdemeanors. They can be charged as a felony offense if aggravating factors exist. People charged with harassment will receive a higher-level charge if:

  • They have previously been convicted of harassment or of communicating a threat
  • Previously been convicted of a domestic violence offense
  • The person they are harassing has a restraining order against them
  • The harassment targeted someone based on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation

Though state harassment laws vary, they often take different methods of harassment into account. Penal statutes may list specific methods of harassment: telephone calls, emails, letters, or more.

Harassment and the Reasonable Person Standard

Harassment cannot be defined by the eye of the beholder. Not all offensive or annoying behavior can be criminalized, and the standard does not adjust to the special sensitivity of a victim.

This requirement of objectivity, sometimes called the "reasonable person standard," is typically spelled out explicitly in statute by requiring the fear created by harassing behavior to be a reasonable fear. Evaluation of reasonableness is highly case-specific and will rely on the totality of the circumstances. For this reason, creepy behavior that is not plainly threatening can be difficult to prosecute as a crime.

Taking Action Against Harassment

Victims of harassment have several ways they can take action against a harasser.

Criminal Complaint: The victims of harassment can file a complaint with the police. A prosecutor can then charge the alleged offender with criminal harassment. They can also petition the court for an order of protection or restraining order. A restraining order prohibits the harasser from:

  • Engaging in harassing behaviors
  • Contacting the victim, and possibly family members and friends
  • Being in close proximity with the victim

Restraining orders are frequently used to prevent domestic violence. Violation of a court order is a criminal offense or a contempt of the court. In some states, violating a protective order can lead to enhanced criminal charges or revocation of bail.

If the victim is unsatisfied with how their complaint to police has been handled by prosecutors, they may bring a civil lawsuit against their harasser. If successful, they could win a permanent restraining order or injunction to bring the harassing behavior to a stop. In some jurisdictions, they could recover damages or legal expenses.

Talk to a Lawyer About Harassment

If you are a victim of harassment, a lawyer can help you file for a protective order or represent your interests to the police and courts in support of a criminal case. On the other hand, if you or a loved one has been accused of harassment, you need legal help to ensure your rights are protected. Talk to a criminal defense lawyer in your area.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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