You could face stalking charges in California if you harass or threaten another person until the person fears for his/her safety and that of their loved ones. Cyberstalking is a stalking offense committed through an electronic device. The crime is among the most severe domestic violence offenses, punishable by a lengthy prison time and hefty fines. Penalties become graver if the victim is a current or former intimate partner. Additionally, a conviction leaves you with a damaging criminal record that could affect several aspects of your life, including your career and social life.
If you face cyberstalking charges, finding a competent criminal lawyer to help fight your charges is advisable. At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, our team of experienced criminal lawyers will study the details of your case to determine the right defense strategies to use to obtain a favorable outcome of your case.
Legal Definition of California Cyberstalking
The law against cyberstalking in California is under PC 646.9. The statute defines cyberstalking as using an electronic device to stalk another person. Stalking is legally defined as threatening or harassing another person until the person is afraid for his/her safety or that of his/her loved ones. An electronic device is not a specific device, but a wide range of media, like:
- The internet
- Text messages
- A phone ( landline or cellular
- Fax machines
- Video messages
- Other electronic devices used today
The law against cyberstalking in California was enacted in 1998, after the amendment of California PC 646.9, which is the law against stalking. The amendment included a new element to the legal meaning of credible threats, to include threats communicated electronically.
Online harassment has been a significant issue since the 90s. People take advantage of the anonymity provided by the internet to pass all manner of information to others, including harassment and threats. It happens mostly with those people who are unwilling or unable to deal face to face with others.
The internet is generally a valuable medium of communication. But if abused, it could cause a lot of harm to people. For instance, cyberstalking could cause an otherwise free and happy person to live in fear for the rest of their life.
Cyberstalking can take many forms. Some cases are lenient, while others are extreme. It has become one of the most aggressively prosecuted offenses in California. Examples of situations that could qualify as cyberstalking include:
- Unsolicited or unwanted harassing or threatening emails
- Disturbing or unwanted text messages, including sexts (explicit messages or photos sent from a cell phone to another)
- Impersonating someone else in an online chat room and engaging other people on behalf of the victim, intending to anger the person and the participants
- Sending or posting humiliating or embarrassing information about a specific victim
- Posting or sending another person’s personal information like their name, phone number, and address, causing others to harass the person
- Hacking a person’s financial account to steal their money or ruin their credit
Cyberstalking is a criminal offense. Thus, the prosecutor has the burden of proof when facing charges under this statute. The prosecutor must demonstrate all the elements of this offense beyond a reasonable doubt for the court to find you guilty. These elements are:
- You willfully or maliciously harassed someone else
- You made credible threats against the person
- You placed that person in justifiable fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones
- You communicated the threat or harassment through the internet or another electronic device
Let us look at some of these elements in greater detail to understand the law better.
A Willful or Malicious Threat or Harassment
You willfully commit an act when you do it on purpose or willingly. An accidental act does not satisfy the elements of this offense.
An act is malicious when you intentionally act wrongfully or illegally to annoy, disturb, or injure another person.
Harassment or Credible Threat
Harassing another person means knowingly and willfully engaging in an act that directly alarms, annoys, terrorizes, or torments another person. Your conduct should also not be legitimate.
A credible threat will cause the victim reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. It is also the kind of threat that the defendant appears to have the ability to carry out. Credible threats can be communicated in writing, orally, or electronically. But for this statute, you must have communicated the threat electronically or through the internet.
Cyberstalking must result in rational fear for the victim’s wellbeing or that of his/her loved ones. It becomes a great challenge for the prosecutor to prove a person’s intention to place another in rational fear for their safety. Thus, the court analyzes the facts of the case to determine whether or not the fear was reasonable. Note that only a genuine threat would cause a person reasonable fear. An actual threat does not include the following:
- Joking expressions
- Exaggerated political statements
- A speech that is protected by the constitution
Lastly, the victim must have experienced reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. Loved ones include the immediate family, which comprised of:
- Parent, child, or spouse
- Grandparents, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, and anyone related to them by marriage or blood
- A person that usually lives in their household
Penalties After Conviction Under California PC 646.9
Cyberstalking is a wobbler offense in California. It means that district attorneys can charge it as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the details of the matter and the defendant’s criminal history. Therefore, penalties after conviction will vary from one offender to the other.
If you face misdemeanor charges for cyberstalking, you will likely receive the following penalties after conviction:
- A maximum of one year in jail
- A fine of not more than $1,000
- Misdemeanor probation in place of jail time
Penalties for a felony conviction under this statute will attract more severe penalties that include:
- A maximum of five years in state prison
- Fines of not more than $1,000
- Felony probation to serve part of your jail time
- Possible requirement to register as a state sex offender for life
A conviction for both felony and misdemeanor cyberstalking will subject you to a mandatory counseling program or confinement in a hospital for treatment of mental illness. You could also receive restraining orders against the victim.
Note: If the victim is an intimate partner, you will face cyberstalking charges under the state’s domestic violence laws. An intimate partner could be any of the following:
- Former or current fiance(e)
- Former or current spouse
- A person living with you
- Your child’s other parent
- A person you were/are dating
You could face additional penalties after a conviction when facing charges under domestic violence laws.
Registering in the Sex Offender Registry
California PC 290 requires individuals convicted of specific sex-related offenses to register their name in the state registry for sex offenders. The period within which you must register will depend on the details of your case. In extreme situations, the defendant could be required to register their name in the registry for life.
As previously mentioned, you could be required to register your name in the sex offender registry for life if convicted of felony cyberstalking. However, the order will only come if the judge thinks that you cyberstalked the victim for sexual gratification or sexual compulsion.
The sex offender registry in California is publicly available. It means that anyone searching your name will know about the registration and could decide how to relate with you based on the same. That is why you must fight your charges to avoid a conviction.
If ordered to register your name in the sex offender registry, you must do so with the local authorities as directed by the judge. Registration must occur within five working days of your birthday. You must also register every time you change your home address. Failing to comply with the order is a separate offense under California PC 290. It is generally a misdemeanor but could be a felony if the underlying sex offense was a felony. A felony conviction for failing to register in the state sex registry carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Possible Defense Strategies Against California Cyberstalking Charges
You must fight your cyberstalking charges to avoid a conviction and its consequences. You can do that by refuting some or all the offense elements. The court could dismiss or reduce your charges if the prosecutor cannot prove all its elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The court could dismiss or reduce your charges. However, you need the help of a competent criminal attorney to do that. Your attorney can use some of the available legal strategies to fight your charges in court. That would weaken the prosecutor’s case and compel the court to decide in your favor. Examples of these strategies are:
People impersonate a lot on the internet. That could cause you to face charges for an offense you did not commit. If a person uses your name or stolen identifying information to harass or threaten others online, you could be mistaken for the actual perpetrator.
Experienced criminal lawyers have handled cases of mistaken identity before. They know how possible it is for one person to be mistakenly identified for a crime the person knows nothing about. Thus, your lawyer will be willing to use every available resource and evidence to prove in court that the victim could be mistaken.
When it comes to technology, it requires excellent knowledge of how it works for the victim or the police to be sure that you did what they are accusing you of doing. Without solid evidence, you cannot be convicted of cyberstalking.
It is not unusual to face false accusations for a severe offense like cyberstalking. A false allegation can present itself in any of these forms:
- When a person mistakenly but honestly believes that you committed the said offense
- When a person knowingly accuses you falsely of committing a crime that did not happen in the first place
A false accusation will likely cause you to receive punishment for a mistake you know nothing about. That is why you need the help of an aggressive criminal lawyer.
The first situation falls under a mistaken identity and was discussed above. However, the second instance is pretty common, especially when the other person seeks revenge or is jealous.
Not much evidence is required to support cyberstalking claims in court. A person can take advantage of that to land you in trouble with the law. In that case, your attorney will find compelling evidence to demonstrate in court the reason and possibility of the victim accusing you falsely. The type of evidence that could help your situation includes video or audio recordings, previous emails, text messages, and other electronic communications.
Lack of Credible Threats
Cyberstalking becomes a grave offense if the threats or harassment involved are credible. If you only jokingly sent a message to the victim and had no way of carrying out the threat, your internet threats will not be reasonable enough to support cyberstalking charges.
Also, recall that a credible threat is intended to cause the victim to fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. If the threat was not credible, the victim could not have feared for their well-being or that of his/her immediate family.
California Cyberstalking and Related Crimes
California laws have other statutes that are closely related to cyberstalking. Some are prosecuted together with cyberstalking, while others, in place of cyberstalking. The most common of these offenses are:
California Criminal Threats — Penal Code 422
Issuing criminal threats is a grave offense in California. You could face charges under this statute if you give threats of great physical harm or death, intending to, and place the victim in reasonable for their safety and the safety of their family. The offense is a wobbler in California, which can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. A conviction under this law could result in a prison sentence of up to three years.
California PC 422 is closely related to cyberstalking. It is because both offenses intend to cause a victim to fear for their safety or the safety of their family. If you issue criminal threats to a person more than once through an electronic device, you could face charges for both criminal threats and cyberstalking.
Sending Harmful Matter to a Child — California PC 288.2
California PC 288.2 makes it an offense for any person to send, exhibit or distribute obscene or harmful material to a person aged 18 years and below, intending to seduce or arouse the minor sexually. It is a wobbler offense in California. A felony conviction under this law could result in mandatory registration as a tier-three sex offender.
PC 288.2 and cyberstalking are closely related in that they both involve sending some form of text or information electronically. Calling a minor repeatedly, sexting, or sending erotic material to a child on email could qualify as both cyberstalking and sending harmful material to a child. It means that you could face charges under both statutes for the same offense.
Annoying Telephone Calls — California PC 653m
The law makes it an offense for any person to repeatedly make phone calls or send threatening or obscene emails or electronic messages to annoy or harass another person. The crime is mainly a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of six months in jail.
California PC 653m is related closely to cyberstalking, too, in that they both make it a criminal offense to make annoying repeatedly or harassing phone calls to another person. The mode of communication in both statutes is electronic communication devices.
However, making annoying phone calls does not require the defendant to act with malice, as cyberstalking requires. That is what makes PC 653m less severe than cyberstalking.
Electronic Cyber Harassment — California PC 653.2
California PC 653.2 makes it an offense to send electronic communication through text messages or emails, intending to place the recipient in rational fear for their safety or the safety of their family. The offense is mainly a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail.
You could be guilty under this law if you post another person’s information or harmful data on the internet to instigate other people to harass the person. It is an indirect form of internet harassment, while cyberstalking is direct.
When you directly harass a person on the internet, you could face cyberstalking charges. But if you only send specific information about a person intending to cause another person to harass the victim, you could face charges under PC 653.2.
Thus, you can only face charges under one or the other, not both laws at the same time.
Find a Experienced Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer Near Me
A conviction for cyberstalking is life-altering. In addition to criminal penalties, you will end up with a damaged reputation and a criminal record. That is why you must fight if you face cyberstalking charges. A competent criminal lawyer could help plan a solid defense against your charges to convince the judge to drop or dismiss your charges. At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, our team of highly trained and experienced criminal lawyers are ready to take you through the legal process. Call us at 310-502-1314, and let us help you obtain a favorable outcome of your situation.