Electronic harassment is no joke

We all pranked people when we were kids. We’d laugh, unless of course we got caught. Then we’d be grounded and lose phone or other privileges. Life isn’t so simple anymore. Along with phoning, we can text and e-mail. People can be harassed to a point beyond annoyance when law enforcement intervention becomes neceessary. Now, what used to get you grounded can end up getting you behind bars.

To obtain a conviction for the crime of making harassing electronic communications, the prosecution must prove three elements. Obviously, an annoying or harassing phone call or electronic communication must be made. It must contain obscene language or be threatening to the person or property of the recipient or their family. It must also be made with the intent to harass or annoy.

Repeatedly phoning a number and hanging up is actionable. If somebody on your behalf makes the harassing or threatening electronic communication on a device that you control, that’s also actionable.

As with most crimes, intent is a pivotal issue. It has to be shown that the accused intended to harass or annoy the person that they contacted. A defense to any prosecution under the statute is that contacts were made in good faith or out of necessity.

Whether or not a communication was obscene is another, but possibly less viable defense. Due to free speech considerations, courts have narrowly construed what obscene language might consist of. The prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and when it free speech is involved, the benefit of the doubt often falls on the side of the accused.

The benefit of the doubt can also fall on the side of the defendant for the same reason on the issue of whether a communication was threatening. To be threatening, something must be communicated that would cause a reasonable person to be intimidated under the totality of the circumstances. This common sense standard applies because we’ve all said things that can be construed as threatening that aren’t intended to be.

A single annoying phone call isn’t actionable. A single threatening electronic contact isn’t actionable either, although it might prompt a visit from Officer Friendly since it’s probably memorialized in writing. Two or more communications can be actionable. Twenty-five will probably get you arrested.

A violation of the electronic harassment statute is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine not to exceed $1,000, plus court costs. Other penalties, including a no contact order with the victim or their family would probably also apply.


Guest Post from a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Law firm