When does harassment become a crime? It's a good question. There's no simple answer. For example, workplace harassment is a serious issue, but usually, it's not a matter for police investigation. States have criminal statutes that forbid certain types of harassment, especially when they include threats of physical harm. Sometimes, the same behavior could be addressed in either civil or criminal court.
This article helps define criminal harassment. It outlines some of the offenses associated with harassment. Discussion will include criminal and civil remedies for ending harassing behavior.
Criminal Harassment Defined
Do states actually have a crime of harassment on the books? Some states do. For example, Pennsylvania defines the crime as when a person, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another:
- Strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise subjects the other person to physical contact or attempts or threatens to do the same
- Follows the other person in or about a public place or places
- Engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits acts which serve no lawful purpose
- Communicates to or about such other person any lewd, lascivious, threatening, or obscene words, language, drawings, or caricatures
- Communicates repeatedly in an anonymous manner
- Communicates repeatedly at extremely inconvenient hours
- Communicates repeatedly in a manner other than specified above
Harassment crimes under (1), (2), and (3) are summary misdemeanor offenses. An offender can face jail time of up to 90 days and a fine of up to $300. Harassment charges under (4), (5), (6), and (7) are third-degree misdemeanor offenses. An offender can face jail time of up to 1 year and a fine of up to $2,500.
Pennsylvania also outlaws the harassment of a child through electronic means or social media. The crime occurs when the offender, with intent to harass, makes serious disparaging remarks about the child's physical characteristics, sexuality, sexual activity, or mental or physical health condition or threatens to inflict harm. This offense is also a third-degree misdemeanor.
In Texas, the criminal harassment statute contains similar prohibitions. The crime occurs when a person, with intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another:
- Initiates communication and makes a comment, request, suggestion, or proposal that is obscene
- Threatens, in a manner reasonably likely to alarm the other, to inflict bodily injury on the other or to commit a felony against the other or a member of the other's family, household, or property
- Conveys, in a manner reasonably likely to alarm, a known false report that another person has suffered death or serious bodily injury
- Causes the telephone of another to ring repeatedly or makes repeated phone calls anonymously or in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another
- Makes a phone call and intentionally fails to hang up or disengage
- Knowingly permits a phone under their control to be used by another to commit the offense
- Sends repeated communications by electronic means in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another
- Publishes on an internet website (including social media), repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to cause emotional distress, abuse, or torment to another, unless made in connection with a matter of public concern
- Tracks or monitors the personal property or motor vehicle of another without the other person's consent, including using a tracking device or following the other person or causing another to follow the other person (this section effective 9/1/23)
Under Texas penal law, harassment is a class B misdemeanor. Conviction can lead to 180 days in jail and a fine of $2,000. It becomes a class A misdemeanor if the offender's criminal record includes a prior conviction. The crime can also rise to a class A misdemeanor if the offender has a prior temporary restraining order against them. It can also be a class A misdemeanor if the victim is a child, and the offender intends that the child commit suicide or commit serious bodily harm. A class A misdemeanor conviction can carry up to one year in jail time and a fine of $4,000.
Harassment crimes vary state by state in title and degree. They usually entail targeting someone with behavior meant to alarm, annoy, torment, or terrorize. Sometimes, they require evidence that they placed the other person in fear or mental distress.
Criminal harassment may often target an ex-spouse or neighbor. Any person could be the target of harassment — a current or former partner, a co-worker, or even a stranger. Harassment could take many forms, such as:
- Online harassment
- Sexual harassment
Sometimes, it can include a threat of damage to the victim's property, home, or car.
In New York, the crime is set forth in four laws that prohibit harassment and aggravated harassment. Aggravated harassment in the first degree is a felony offense. It targets offenders who engage in "hate crimes." It outlaws certain conduct where the intent to harass is based on their belief or perception about a person's status. For example, the offender's focus is on the other person's:
- Natural origin
- Gender identity or gender expression
- Religion or religious practice
- Sexual orientation
Stalking and Menacing
Not all states have a crime called "harassment." Oftentimes, harassment is a general term that covers a variety of crimes where an offender targets an individual. Even if there is no harassment statute, a state will have other related offenses. These crimes will attempt to address the public safety concerns central to harassment.
For example, all states today have a law against stalking. Interstate stalking is a federal crime as well. At the state level, stalking and harassment may fall under the same statute or be set forth as separate crimes. For example, in Maryland, stalking and harassment crimes are separate, but they fall one right after the other in the penal code.
Stalking refers to an intentional pattern of malicious and repeated behavior that causes the victim to fear for their safety or their family's safety. It may also cause a victim mental distress. Stalking crimes often require two or more incidents occurring close in time. Alone, one incident may not amount to a crime. But taken together, the incidents may meet the definition of stalking. Examples of stalking behaviors include:
- Frequent unwanted phone calls and text messages at all hours
- Following a person or 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, or at their desk
- Vandalizing a person's property
- Making threats of physical harm to a person or their family members
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.
Ohio does not have a criminal harassment statute. It does have an offense called "menacing by stalking." This offense is a first-degree misdemeanor crime in most instances. Aggravating factors can raise the offense to a felony with the potential of prison time. One such factor is a prior conviction. Another is when the alleged victim is a minor child (under 18 years old).
Whether and how states draw lines between harassment, menacing, and stalking will vary. 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 harm someone across state lines. This includes most internet communications, which 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, including:
- The internet
- 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 communication between the two parties can be a factor.
Harassment of a sexual nature is a serious issue in the workplace. Sexual harassment can include behaviors that are also crimes. Unwanted sexual advances and requests for dates may be issues for management or require civil actions. If the conduct at issue concerns groping or fondling, it may be an assault or a sex offense for law enforcement to investigate. Furthermore, if workplace harassment leads to stalking outside the workplace, it could cross the line into criminal harassment.
Victims of harassment have several ways they can take action against a harasser.
The victims of harassment can file a complaint with a police officer. A prosecutor can then review the results of the police investigation. They can file criminal charges for harassment, stalking, or other crimes. The victim or law enforcement officer 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, family members, and friends
- Being in close proximity with the victim
Restraining orders are often used in cases of domestic violence, stalking, and sex offenses. Violation of a protection order can be a criminal offense. It may also lead to revocation of bail.
Pursuing criminal charges can lead to a harassment conviction and sentencing. Jail time can provide an effective deterrent in many cases.
Many harassment cases may actually begin in civil courts. Annoying and unwanted communications, usually in the midst of a breakup, lead the targeted party to seek a civil protection order (different states use different terms). In this non-criminal context, the victim sues the harasser in civil court. The alleged harasser will have an opportunity to explain why the court should not grant the order. If the court issues a protective order, any future violation can be a criminal offense or contempt of court.
If the parties are married or have children together, the civil family court can also address issues of divorce, custody, parenting time, and support. If the victim alleged assault, they may bring a civil action for damages against the harasser. If successful, they could seek a permanent restraining order or injunction to bring the harassing behavior to a stop. In some jurisdictions, they could recover legal expenses.
Harassment and the 'Reasonable Person Standard'
Harassment cannot be defined by the eye of the beholder. Not all offensive or annoying behavior is criminal, and the standard does not adjust to the special sensitivity of a victim.
This rule of objectivity, sometimes called the "reasonable person standard," may appear in the statute. Did the victim have a reasonable fear of physical harm? Evaluation of reasonableness is case-specific and will rely on the totality of the circumstances. For this reason, some creepy behavior that is not plainly threatening may be difficult to prosecute as a crime.
Talk to a Lawyer About Harassment
If you are a victim of harassment, a lawyer can help you. They can file for a protective order or represent your interests to the police and courts in support of a criminal case. They can also help you bring a civil action against the harasser. On the other hand, if you or a loved one faces claims of harassment, you may need legal advice to protect your rights. Consider talking with a criminal defense lawyer in your area.