Stalking and Cyberstalking Charges

Stalking and cyberstalking are serious crimes in North Carolina, and potentially federal law, that carry harsh criminal and civil penalties if convicted. A person is guilty of stalking when they harass a person without legal purpose on two or more occasions that would reasonably result in the other person to:

  • Fear for their safety or the safety of their friends, family, or other closely associated people.
  • Suffer significant emotional distress due to fear of continued harassment, injury, or death.

While we typically view stalking as repeatedly following and spying on someone in person, you can be guilty of stalking through other mediums, such as by phone, indirectly through other people, or via the internet. Stalking through electronic communication, such as by phone, email or social media, is a crime known as “cyberstalking”.

While many people will only take legal action against their alleged stalker if they are under reasonable and substantial emotional distress, the ambiguities of these laws do allow for some unreasonable or even malicious charges to fall on unsuspecting people. If you are facing stalking charges, you should contact a defense attorney immediately who has the experience to understand all the facts of your case and build a solid defense.

victim of cyberstalking viewing harassment messages on phone

What is Stalking and Cyberstalking?

Classifying an act as stalking may seem simple when we only think of the extreme examples, such as peeping toms repeatedly trespassing on private property, but what constitutes stalking, and especially cyberstalking, is quite broad. Some examples of what could be considered stalking or cyberstalking include:

  • Following a person or spying on them, as well as taking their photos, video, or audio recordings of them without their consent.
  • Leaving intimidating voicemails or sending repeated unwanted physical mail to somebody.
  • Repeatedly visiting a person’s home or workplace uninvited.
  • Repeatedly calling somebody or their family or friends, even after being told to cease contact.
  • Threatening to harm a person, their property, people they know, or their pets, in a physical or sexual manner.

In any of the above examples and all other possible acts that can be viewed as stalking, it is important to note that the following should be true:

  • The act should have been done twice or more, especially after it had been established that the other person did not consent to such contact.
  • The purpose of the act was to intimidate, threaten, or harass.
  • The victim would reasonably be in fear or suffer significant emotional distress.

Each of the above aspects of the crime have their unique ambiguities and subjective elements which necessitates a very meticulous examination of the facts of the case to build a solid defense.

Related Crimes

One key issue with stalking and cyberstalking charges is that they can easily be combined with several other related indictments, depending on the situation.

In situations where the defendant physically stalking or followed a person into their property, they can face other charges such as:

  • Secretly “peeping” into a room occupied by another person (“Peeping Tom”)
  • Trespassing

If the crime involved a defendant making credible threats of violence, including threatening murder, along with stalking, they can face changes such as:

  • Communicating threats
  • Attempted Murder

Stalking crimes also become even more complicated and far more serious in domestic violence cases, especially for past domestic violence offenders. If you are guilty of committing an act of stalking while violating a protect order, the penalties can be severe and you will need an exceptionally tight defense to get through to the judge and jury

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Is Cyberbullying the Same as Cyberstalking?

Cyberbullying is a term that comes up often in relation to cyberstalking, but it is not always clear how whether they are the same or different concepts. You can find many different definitions online for both, but generally, under the law, “cyberbullying” is typically a term used when the acts involve children, while cyberstalking or cyber-harassment is used in cases involving adults. The actual actions that constitute both are roughly the same, though there are generally different trends law enforcement and various agencies involved will find that differ between them. Whether cyberbullying is treated as a crime depends on whether the act only involved children or involved an adult harming a child.

Cyberbullying Laws in North Carolina

In North Carolina, cyberbullying between children can be punished under the state’s school violence prevention and anti-bullying law  (115C-407.15) and can be handled by juvenile courts when the issue escalates beyond the school administration’s authority. 

For cases where adults cyberbully children, the crime falls under North Carolina’s Computer Trespass law N.C.G.S § 14-458.1, which pertains to the cyberbullying of children. The statute indicates that it is unlawful to use a computer or computer network with the intent to intimidate, torment or otherwise harm a minor. This can include actions such as:

  • Building a fake profile or website for/about them, or pose as them on the internet (in a chat room, email message, or instant message)
  • Follow a minor online or into an internet chatroom (to harass/intimidate)
  • Post or encourage others to post private, personal or sexual information pertaining to a minor on the internet.
  • Accessing programs, data, software or other electronic material of a minor or their guardian(s) with the intent to harm a minor.
  • Making statements (whether true or false) that is intended to provoke others to stalk or harass a minor.
  • Making unauthorized copies of data pertaining to a minor and disseminating that data for the purposes of causing them harm.
  • Signing a minor up for a pornographic internet site with the intent to intimidate or torment the minor.
  • Signing a minor up, without their parent/guardian consent, for electronic mailing lists or to receive junk electronic messages (with intent to torment/harm).

Anybody found guilty of these charges is punished with a class 1 misdemeanor if they were 18 or older at the time of the offense, or a class 2 misdemeanor for anybody between 16 and 18 years old. It is common that people plead guilty to these charges, especially for those under 18, as they can reduce punishment to probation and dismiss proceedings against them, so they will not have a conviction on their record.

North Carolina Penalties for Stalking and Cyberstalking

In North Carolina, penalties for stalking, cyberstalking, and general communication threats fall under different statutes with different penalty structures, as follows:

Stalking Penalties

Stalking penalties are covered under N.C.G.S § 14-277.3A, where punishment is based on prior convictions and violation of any active protective orders.

  • First offense: If the defendant has no prior stalking conviction and is facing no relevant court orders, the offense is punished as a class A1 misdemeanor. If placed under community punishment or probation, that probation must be supervised.
  • Second offense: If the defendant has a prior stalking conviction, the offense is punished as a class F felony.
  • When violating a protective order: If the defendant violated an active protective order against committing the offense, such as stalking somebody who has a restraining order against them, their offense is at least punished as a class H felony.

Cyberstalking and Communication Threat Penalties

There are a variety of places in North Carolina’s General Statutes (N.C.G.S) that cover communicating threats or stalking online or electronically. They are typically misdemeanor crimes so long as no other more serious crimes are present, and include:

  • Cyberstalking: is punished as a class 2 misdemeanor, according to C.G.S § 14-196.3.
  • Communicating Threats: punished as a class 1 misdemeanor, according to C.G.S § 14-277.1.
  • Telephone Threats and Harassment: punished as a class 2 misdemeanor, according to C.G.S § 14-196.

Federal Penalties for Stalking and Cyberstalking

Typically, stalking cases would be handled at the state level, but there is potential for the case to be taken up by federal prosecutors, especially for cyberstalking crimes that can occur across state lines. There are three key federal laws that apply to cyberstalking:

  1. The Interstate Stalking and Prevention Act of 1996 – 18 USC § 2661A

 The broadest cyberstalking law, which makes it a crime to travel between states or use the mail, any computer service, or interstate or foreign facility to engage in stalking or cyberstalking. The penalties upon conviction can be up to 5 years in prison and fines.

  1. The Interstate Communications Act – 18 USC § 875

This law makes it a federal rime to transmit communication that threatens to kidnap or injure any person or property. It is particularly focused on the use of phone calls, emails and online communication. The penalties upon conviction depend on the specifics of the crime, such that:

  • Threatening to injure property or reputation with intent to extort money or goods of value is punished with a fine or imprisonment up to 2 years, or both.
  • Threatening to injure or kidnap a person is punished with a fine or imprisonment up to 5 years, or both.
  • Threatening to kidnap a person with intent to extort money or goods is punished with a fine or imprisonment up to 20 years, or both.
  • Communicating a demand or request for ransom or reward for the release of a kidnapped person is punished with a fine or imprisonment up to 20 years, or both.
  1. The Telephone Harassment Act – 47 USC § 223

This act prohibits using a telephone or the internet to knowingly communicate messages that harass, annoy, abuse, or threaten anyone. The penalties upon conviction are fines, imprisonment up to 2 years, or both.   

Defending Against Stalking and Cyberstalking Charges

If you have been accused of stalking or cyberstalking, you should contact an experienced defense attorney immediately. The attorneys at Tarlton | Polk have handled many such cases and related cases in areas like domestic violence, assault, and threats, so they understand the kinds of tactics prosecutions use in these cases. As the definition for stalking and cyberstalking are broad, these charges require meticulous examination of the facts involved and evidence against you to devise an effective defense strategy. Every case is unique so what may be an effective strategy in one may not be viable in another, but below are some examples of aspects of the charges an experienced lawyer can build a defense on. 

Challenging "Reasonable" Fear

A key element of stalking cases is that the alleged victim should have experienced “reasonable” fear due to the actions of the defendant. What is considered reasonable is subject to details in the case and possible precedents set by previous case rulings.

The key element to note about reasonable fear is that it is not solely predicated upon a direct violent threat being made. It is possible for the alleged victim’s fear to be considered reasonable even if you did not directly threaten them, as long the behavior you were accused of is considered reasonably threatening. This can commonly be the case for people who repeatedly physically stalk victims, especially women and children, who have reason to fear that the stalker may be planning to use violence. Conversely, a violent threat may not always be considered a cause for reasonable fear, particularly if the alleged threat is not considered credible or actionable. For example, a threat made in jest in a light-hearted context would be unlikely to be considered inducing of reasonable fear. 

Conduct was Protected Under the First Amendment

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The first amendment right to freedom of expression is an issue of contention in cases of communication threats. Many of the relevant statutes explicitly state that the law is not supposed to be interpreted in a way that impedes the first amendment, such as North Carolina’s cyberstalking statute which states:

This section does not apply to any peaceable, nonviolent, or nonthreatening activity intended to express political views or to provide lawful information to others. This section shall not be construed to impair any constitutionally protected activity, including speech, protest, or assembly.

Nonetheless, a poor defense against stalking crimes that only involve alleged communication threats can allow for prosecution to classify your acts as unprotected threatening behavior. Defending on the basis of the first amendment generally requires arguing that while your communication may have had the appearance of a threat, according to the alleged victim, they were in fact not so. The specific facts involved in the case will help determine whether this is a viable offense, such as the context in which you communicated the alleged threats, or whether you attempted or initiated any close contact with the alleged victim.

Request a Consultation with Tarlton | Polk Stalking Attorneys

Our lawyers have successfully represented clients in stalking and related cases, so they know how to carefully structure a defense based on the facts of the case. Most importantly, we are exceptionally skilled at taking these cases to trial, as we know the tactics used in violent crime prosecution that often push the defendant into a plea-bargaining position before a trial begins. If you would like to learn more about how we an help, or request a consultation with us, then leave us a message or call us today.