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Civil harassment involves threats, violence, stalking or any behavior that scares or annoys someone without a legitimate purpose. It includes acts that cause emotional distress to the victim and can occur between neighbors, co-workers, roommates or former friends. Civil harassment covers face-to-face contact; annoying by phone, through e-mail or letters; or simply watching a person who feels threatened.
Laws in some areas provide for temporary restraining orders to stop the unwanted behavior until a civil harassment hearing is held. A temporary restraining order prohibits the harasser from any contact whatsoever with the person filing it. The order can include the victim’s family members and can ban the harasser from the victim's workplace.
At a civil harassment hearing, a judge can issue a permanent restraining order if clear and convincing evidence is presented that harassment has occurred. The standard of proof in civil harassment cases is higher than the preponderance of evidence required in most civil disputes. It is lower than beyond a reasonable doubt used in criminal trials.
The person filing the complaint can bring witnesses, photos, written threats and other evidence to show that harassment took place. If property was damaged by the harasser, photos can illustrate the destruction for the judge. A lawyer may or may not assist at the hearing.
If the judge issues a permanent restraining order, it must be served on the person named in the order within a set time limit. In some jurisdictions, the harasser must turn in all firearms while the restraining order is in force. The information on the restraining order is usually entered into a database accessible to police, and law enforcement can arrest the harasser if he or she violates the civil harassment restraining order.
A person who is the subject of the restraining order can file an answer to the accusations levied by the victim. He or she might deny the facts of the complaint or list reasons for the acts committed. The person named in the restraining order may also argue that a reasonable person under the same circumstances would not have felt threatened or suffered emotional distress. Finally, he or she can claim the acts were not intentional.
Sometimes mediation can resolve a dispute without a hearing. Civil harassment cases are commonly volatile and stressful, with accusations traded between the parties. A mediator may be able to help the litigants come to a solution to end the dispute and mend the relationship. If both sides remain hostile to each other, lawyers sometimes meet to hammer out an agreement for both parties to follow. Mediation is not binding in court, but it can be considered a contract if the case is re-filed at a later date.
At what point doesn't civil harassment become a criminal offense? In most jurisdictions in the United States, there are varying degrees of harassment ranging from misdemeanors all the way through the felony range.
That being the case, civil harassment must be very tame by comparison. Still, where is the line between civil and criminal harassment?