Criminal harassment is defined as behavior that the harasser knows would cause undue fear, intimidation or persecution, and adversely affects the victim’s safety and security. A victim may receive threatening or obscene phone calls, unwanted gifts, notes and text messages, or observe the harasser loitering outside home or work. Depending on the actions a perpetrator commits, criminal harassment can bring gross misdemeanor or felony charges. Interstate stalking is a federal crime, either in person or over the Internet.
Most victims of criminal harassment know the perpetrators. This type of harassment can occur at the end of a marriage or during a breakup, in a dispute between neighbors, or in a obsessive stalking situation. Almost all states now have anti-stalking laws. Under these statutes, stalking itself is a crime against the victim and it is not necessary to wait until the harasser does something illegal. Romantic obsessions are common stalking scenarios and contain great potential for escalation.
Civil remedies for harassment include orders of protection or restraining orders, ex parte orders, and requests to protect publicly available information. The court can issue a restraining order stating the harasser must stay away from the victim at all times and may not contact the person. An ex parte order is an emergency restraining order that gives the police the power to arrest the harasser if he does not comply. This gives the victim time to apply for other protection. If the harasser does something that causes harm to the victim or destroys property, a lawsuit can help recover damages.
Perpetrators of criminal harassment face additional criminal charges each time they violate an order of protection. Penalties become more severe based on aggravating factors like the victim’s age, whether the victim is being harassed because of gender, race, disability, or national origin, or whether a weapon is used. Harassment of a judicial officer or tampering with a witness in a court case will also escalate the charge. Since the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, terrorism is a pressing concern. Making terrorist threats or brandishing weapons, even a fake or BB gun, will be taken seriously by law enforcement and federal agencies.
Preventing criminal harassment is difficult, but consistent enforcement of laws goes a long way. Police cannot charge someone with a crime without evidence, but victims can assist them by saving recordings of phone calls, text messages, or gifts, no matter how disturbing. Victims should call police whenever something occurs and keep notes about times, places, and events to establish a record. They should not disturb crime scenes so as not to damage or erase physical evidence. All of these actions will help the victim to file a solid criminal harassment complaint.