A harassment charge is a legal charge filed against someone who intimidates, threatens, stalks, or otherwise makes another person feel unsafe or annoyed. This charge may also be filed against someone who steals personal information, snoops, or invades other people's privacy. Depending on the violation, the charge may be civil or criminal. Criminal cases can end with a misdemeanor or felony conviction, and can be punishable by prison time.
What Is Harassment?
Many different behaviors can be considered harassment, but the victim's perception that he or she is being threatened is usually the most important factor. Repeated unwanted contact, including excessive phone calls, too-frequent e-mails, or showing up uninvited at another person’s house multiple times after being told to stop are all common forms of harassment. In other cases, a person directly threaten victims or spy on them.
Victims usually know the harasser, but not always. People from old romantic relationships or someone who's been rejected by the victim may become bitter and start to behave inappropriately. For example, in a divorce, one spouse may threaten the other, causing significant distress that results in a harassment charge. In other cases, the harasser might be someone with a personal grievance against the victim, like an angry co-worker or someone with a childhood grudge. Some people are delusional and believe that they can pressure their victims into accepting them on a personal level if they just keep pushing them.
Civil vs. Criminal Cases
Whether harassment is considered civil or criminal generally depends on the relationship between the harasser and the victim and the type of behavior involved. Though laws vary by jurisdiction, civil harassment is generally seen as being done by a person who the victim has not been in an intimate or romantic relationship with, like a neighbor, stranger, or family member that's not a parent, sibling, grandparent, or in-law. A criminal harassment charge is generally brought against people who a victim has been in a close relationship with, like a former spouse or romantic partner. Similar behavior from a close family member may be considered domestic violence rather than harassment.
The type of behavior is more important than the status of the relationship in some jurisdictions. For instance, a stalker would usually face criminal charges, regardless of his or her relationship with the victim. Sexual harassment can also be subject to special statutes in some places. It is actually a form of discrimination, which is a civil rather than criminal charge. Other forms of discriminatory behavior, such as bullying based on ethnic differences, sexual preferences, or religion is also typically seen as a civil crime.
Misdemeanor vs. Felony Cases
Laws vary by jurisdiction, but generally speaking, misdemeanor harassment charges are filed in less serious cases, or for first time offenders, while felony charges are brought against very serious, threatening, or repeated offenders. This is especially true for people who violate a no-contact order or have previous convictions. In some areas of the US, the type of person being harassed determines whether the charge is a felony or misdemeanor. For example, felony charges may be brought against someone who harasses a public official, but misdemeanor charges against someone who does the same thing to a private person.
Steps for Victims
Once someone feels like he or she has been threatened, it is usually possible to file a restraining order through the court system. This prohibits the accused person from having any contact with the victim. If the order is granted and then violated, the suspect can be arrested on a harassment charge. In cases where violence occurs, a person may be able to file for an order of protection, which specifically prohibits any act of violence, and orders the assailant to do specific things to increase the safety of the victim, such as not being in the same area.
Responding to a Harassment Charge
Anyone who is being charged with harassment should contact a lawyer and get to know the laws in his or her area to understand what types of behavior have led to the charge and avoid them while the case is pending. For instance, in some areas of the US, a person can be charged with harassment even if he or she has never made threats to a person's face, but has done so through a third party or repeatedly talked in a threatening way about someone to mutual friends. Someone who doesn't know that might keep doing behavior that is legally considered harassment without knowing it. He or she should follow any court directives strictly, and be sure not to contact the person making the charges without first consulting a lawyer.