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What is Criminal Harassment?

By Elizabeth West
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Sep 28, 2014

My cousin had to deal with her crazy ex husband harassing her. She finally bought a pistol, learned to shoot, and when he would sit on the opposite side of the street and shine the car's bright lights into her window, or stand outside yelling at her, she started taking potshots at him. She had informed the neighbors who, of course, were sympathetic to her. They would call the police saying he was back at the house, but when he said she shot at him, they never heard a thing.

She had every order in the world on him, but he kept on. She finally moved out of state to be away from him. At least, after she bought the gun, he did quit coming by the house.

By Pippinwhite — On Sep 27, 2014

I'm glad criminal harassment is much easier to prosecute, but sometimes, people have a hard time getting the police to believe they have been harassed, even though they have evidence illustrating the harassment. This should not be the case.

Once a no contact order has been issued, an ex parte order should *always* be issued at the same time. Anyone who violates a no contact order should be arrested at once, in my opinion. Just shooing the harasser away from the property does zero good. He or she will just return as soon as the police leave.

I also think anyone who has been convicted on a criminal harassment charge should have to undergo a complete psychiatric evaluation and have counseling as a condition of their sentence. Period. No exceptions. It wouldn't help all of the offenders, but it might help a few of them.

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