Is Cyberstalking a Crime?
One of the most misunderstood – but also most common – sexual harassment crimes is a violation known as cyber stalking. Up to 40% of U.S. adults report that they have been harassed or stalked online.
With our ever-present electronic devices – smartphones, computers, tablets, iPads – we are all online almost constantly. It is how we communicate, through emails, text messages, instant messaging, and on social media. With that said, when do online activities become a crime under Michigan or federal law?
Here, we take a closer look about what cyberstalking is and isn‘t, what the penalties for violating cyberstalking laws are, and what to do if you are facing actual or false accusations of online stalking.
Cyber harassment and cyber stalking are related forms of online abuse that exist on the same spectrum. One is unwanted and troubling online conduct, and the other is that same pattern or behavior elevated to a threatening or intimidating degree.
As far as whether or not a crime has been committed, it depends on the specific behaviors and how they affect the alleged victim. In fact, those distinctions can mean the difference between no charges being filed, a costly civil case, a misdemeanor charge, or even a felony conviction.
Obviously, that means that there are nuances within anti–stalking laws and legal arguments that can be made that an attorney familiar with cyberstalking cases could use to mount a successful defense.
However, before any discussion of cyberstalking can begin, you must first understand the legal definitions of harassment and stalking in the real world.
Harassment is continuing to contact or attempting to contact a target who has clearly expressed that the contact is unwelcome and needs to stop.
Harassment is legally defined as an ongoing pattern of behavior, not just a single incident. For example, sending a flirty message is not a crime in Michigan, but continuing to send message after message after the target has made it clear that the attention is unwelcome crosses a line into harassment.
Of special relevance, Michigan law defines a “pattern” of conduct as few as two separate acts.
The legal benchmark for harassment has two parts.
First, the pattern of offensive behaviors must be bad enough that a reasonable person could be expected to suffer substantial emotional distress as a result. Second, the targeted victim must be able to establish that they actually experienced emotional distress.
Ordinary harassment is not a crime in the state of Michigan. A victim can, however, still file a civil lawsuit to recover damages for emotional pain and suffering.
By contrast, stalking is a crime. This is defined as a pattern of conduct that could cause a reasonable person to feel “frightened, terrorized, threatened, intimidated, molested, or harassed.”
Cyber harassment occurs when an individual engages in these same types of behaviors online. As with the real world equivalent, cyber harassment does not typically involve a credible threat. However, it does involve a pattern of unwanted online conduct that any reasonable person would find “emotionally distressing,” and that caused the alleged victim to actually suffer said emotional distress.
Examples of cyber harassment include:
- Sending multiple unconsented electronic communications – emails, private messages, instant messaging, social media posts, texts, etc. – despite being told that they were unwelcome.
- Creating a website or writing blogs with the specific intent to torment a specific individual.
Cyber harassment does not include free speech protected by the Constitution or any online conduct that serves a legitimate purpose, such as work emails.
Importantly, cyber harassment is not a crime under Michigan law. However, if the alleged victim can establish that the pattern of conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional pain AND if they can prove how they suffered as a direct result, there may be grounds for a civil suit and damages.
Likewise, cyberstalking is a pattern of criminal harassment – online behavior that targets a specific individual of a nature that could cause an average person to feel threatened, AND that causes the victim to suffer a reasonable fear that they were in immediate danger of serious bodily injury or substantial emotional distress.
Examples of cyberstalking include:
- Posting suggestive, offensive, or rude comments
- Following the victim online by joining the same forums and social media groups
- Sending lewd, threatening, or controlling emails and messages to the targeted victim
- Using technology to threaten or blackmail the target
- Excessively tagging the target on social media, even on irrelevant posts
- Liking or commenting on everything the target posts
- Messaging the target incessantly
- Creating fake social media accounts to follow the target
- Hacking or hijacking the target’s online accounts
- Attempting to extort explicit photos or sex, aka “sextortion”
- Releasing confidential, private, or embarrassing information about the target
- Posting private photos of the person online
- Sending unsolicited nudes or sexual comments, i.e. sexting
- Attempting to shame the target with fake posts
- Installing tracking devices and programs
- Hacking into their devices
- Using social media info to track the target and show up physically where they are
- Stealing passwords to hack accounts
- Draining bank accounts
- Identity theft
- Contacting their friends and family
- Sending unwanted gifts to their home or job
Online stalking is very much the same as it is in the real world. Offenders can harass, embarrass, and threaten their victims to the point where they do not feel safe online or in the real world, and that is a violation of Michigan anti-stalking laws.
Cyberstalking is a Crime
Under Michigan state stalking laws, cyber stalking is usually prosecuted as a misdemeanor. If convicted, the maximum penalty is a $1,000 fine and/or up to one year in jail.
If the cyberstalking target is younger than 18 and the adult online stalker is older by five or more years, then it becomes a much more serious cyber crime.
Cyberstalking of a minor is a felony that is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both.
While cyber harassment and cyber stalking are not listed among other Michigan sex crimes, a study published in 1999 determined that in their minds, many stalkers are seeking some form of intimacy, including sexual gratification.
Is Cyberstalking a Federal Crime?
Under federal law, cyberstalking is defined as engaging in any online conduct with the intent to “kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance,” if that conduct causes the target to suffer a reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death.
Importantly, it doesn’t have to just be a fear of personal injury or death. It is also a federal crime if the online stalking causes the target to fear for the safety of their:
- Immediate family members
- Spouse or significant other
- Pet, horse, service or emotional support animal
The statute reads that someone who uses “the mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or electronic communication system of interstate commerce, or any other facility of interstate or foreign commerce to engage” in online stalking may be charged with a federal crime.
The maximum fine for this charge is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
When is It NOT Cyberstalking?
Not all offensive or unwanted online interactions are against the law. For example, It is not a crime to like or comment on someone‘s social media posts. It is not against the law to send private messages or texts. It is also certainly not against the law for one adult to express romantic or sexual interest in another adult.
Likewise, it is not illegal to use the internet to look up someone’s public information online.
Since free speech is protected, even posting offensive content is not a crime. Someone can’t say that you are stalking them online just because you make a comment or send a message that they don’t like. While that may not often be socially acceptable, it does not meet the legal definition of a crime.
In fact, such online conduct does not rise to the level of cyber harassment or cyberstalking until:
- The alleged victim clearly tells you that the behavior is unwelcome and that they want you to stop.
- You continue with the behavior, establishing a problematic pattern.
- The pattern of behavior is so severe that it would cause a reasonable person to feel distressed or threatened.
- The alleged victim actually feels distressed or threatened.
What To Do When You Are Accused of Cyberstalking
Obviously, there is a fine line between exercising your right to free speech, acceptable online behavior, and criminal conduct versus conduct that is merely unwelcome or offensive.
When you are facing criminal cyber stalking charges, where that line begins or ends is a matter of legal interpretation and argument. Hiring a criminal defense lawyer who understands the nuances of Michigan stalking laws and who can make that important argument gives you the best chance of beating these charges against you.
If you are arrested for stalking someone online, exercise your two most important constitutional rights – remain silent and refuse to answer any questions without your attorney present.
Then contact Blank Law, PC, the top cyberstalking law firm in Michigan.
Fighting for Your Rights
If you have been falsely accused of online harassment or cyberstalking – whether through a misunderstanding or through baseless charges – you need a criminal defense team that will challenge every allegation against you and every step made by law enforcement or the prosecution.
Some of the questions that top cyberstalking lawyers use include:
- Does the alleged online contact even meet the legal standard for being a crime?
- If your electronic devices were seized, was the search warrant valid?
- Are the records that are presented as evidence complete to show context and to tell the whole story? Or are they edited and incomplete?
- Does anyone else have access to your devices and passwords?
There are many more questions and criminal defense strategies that the right cyber crimes lawyer can ask and employ to help you get the case dismissed, face reduced charges, or win an outright acquittal.
The Right Law Firm to Beat Cyberstalking Charges in Michigan
Founding defense attorney Nicole Blank Becker has worked for over 20 years in the Michigan legal system, as both an Assistant Prosecutor and in private practice. Nicole previously served as the Chief of Macomb County‘s Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Crimes Units.
Likewise, defense attorney Christopher Coyle brings his own valuable experience and proven expertise to the table. Chris was a Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor for more than 30 years before joining Blank Law, PC. Previously, he served as the Deputy Chief of the Wayne County Special Victims Unit.
Individually, Nicole and Chris have worked for both the defense and the prosecution, and that gives them a unique insight about what strategies work best. This is why they are the top cyberstalking lawyers in Michigan.
Collectively, they have over 50 years’ worth of criminal defense skills and experience that could and should be working for you right now. If you need to beat cyberstalking charges, CALL FOR A FREE CONSULTATION TODAY.
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