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Online Impersonation: Texas Laws and Regulations

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The Texas Legislation passed a criminal offense concerning online harassment through impersonation under Texas Penal Code Section 33.07. Online harassment through impersonation is a online criminal offense that’s frequently classified as cyberstalking elsewhere in the United States.

Many online impersonation cases involve persons in a current or previous intimate relationship. Some matters involve the impersonation of a neighbor, acquaintance, or complete stranger.

Have you been charged with online impersonation in the Greater Houston area? Attorney Brett Podolsky can help. His criminal defense firm has the experience and skill needed to protect you from an unfair legal system. Contact The Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky today for tough legal representation.

State law says it’s a felony offense to use another person’s name or personal when creating web content, posting on social media or network sites when or if the action is used to intimidate, threaten, or defraud another person or persons. To date, the online impersonation statute has been criticized by many as poorly written, overly broad, and vague. Some imagine relatively benign behaviors that might fall within the statute’s prohibitions. Several challenges to the statute allege that it undermines the individual’s right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Don’t assume that’s the case. If you’re facing a charge of felony domestic violence for the impersonation of another individual online in Houston or throughout Texas, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.

Online Impersonation Laws in Texas

Under Texas Penal Code Section 33.07, Online Impersonation, an individual is restricted from using another person’s name or persona without receiving consent from the person. When an individual uses another person’s name or persona with the intent to “harm,” “defraud,” “intimidate,” or threaten” another individual by 1) creating a page on the world wide web or on a social networking site or a website, or 2) posts or sends at least one message on or through the commercial/social networking site or through another website on the Internet (other than on/through an email program or message board), he or she violates Section 33.07 (a) and faces third-degree felony punishments in Texas.

Texas Penal Code Section 33.07 (b) says that a person may not send email, instant messages, text messages, or similar that refers to an individual’s name, website address, telephone number, or other identifying data that belongs to another person: 1) without his or her consent, 2) with an intention to cause another person receiving the communications to believe that the person sent or authorized the sending of these communications, and 3) did so with an intention to defraud or harm the recipient/name or persona owner.

If convicted of an online harassment through impersonal charge under § 33.07 (b), the defendant faces Class A misdemeanor penalties. If the defendant acts with an intention to obtain a response from emergency personnel, the crime rises to a third-degree felony.

Legal Definitions

Texas Penal Code Section 33.07 (f) defines terms relating to the online harassment/impersonation statute:

  • Commercial social networking site includes a “business,” “organization,” or similar entity that owns a website permitting individuals to register as users in order to establish relationships with other users through communication made directly or in real time with other users.
  • Alternatively, the statute restricts the individual’s creation of a web page or profile available to other users or to members of the public using another person’s name, persona, or identifying information (as defined under Section 32.51 of the Texas Penal Code).
  • The term doesn’t include a message board program or email programs.

Examples of Online Impersonation in Texas

Let’s say that Bill and Ramona are engaged in a divorce. Bill doesn’t want to get divorced and he is fiercely jealous of Ramona’s online dating site activity.
Bill is aware the Ramona is quite interested in someone named Robert Adams. He creates a Facebook page as Robert Adams, exports Robert Adams’s image from LinkedIn, and populates the new page with stock images. He sends a private message to Ramona, and Ramona immediately answers. She tells “Robert” how happy she is to hear from him.

In Bill’s mind, Ramona’s immediate response and willingness to “hook up” later this week are proof that Ramona was cheating on him for years. He gets angry and vents his rage at Ramona. He threatens to kill her and demands that Ramona moves out of the family home that night.

Ramona is now fearful about Bill’s mental state. She contacts the police as soon as she leaves the house. Ramona consults with an attorney about placing an online impersonation charge. Her divorce attorney recommends that Ramona immediately requests a restraining order as a protective strategy. The online impersonation attorney encourages Ramona to file a criminal complaint against her soon-to-be ex-husband Bill.

Bill is bewildered and ashamed of his actions. He needs an experienced criminal defense attorney now to defuse and manage the conflict. If convicted, Bill will have a permanent criminal record that might affect his career as a second-grade elementary school teacher in Houston.

Related Crimes: Bullying, Cyberbullying, Harassment, and Disruptive Activities

Bullying and cyberbullying are related to online impersonation crimes. These acts are covered by several different laws in Texas. Some laws apply to students and describe school-related punishments. Others are applicable to all Texas citizens and, if convicted, may result in criminal punishments and penalties.

Bullying is described in the Texas Educational Code [Section 37.0832]. Bullying in this context happens when a student makes any written or verbal statement, physical action, or electronic communication that causes:

  • Physical harm to another student
  • Physical harm to another student’s belongings/property
  • Creates a reasonable fear of harm in another student

Bullying includes persistent, ongoing, or severe statements or physical acts that result in a negative educational environment for one or more students. Conduct of a student that interferes with any student’s education, or causes disruption in school, or takes advantage of a power imbalance between the alleged perpetrator and victim is bullying.

Bullying may take place at school or on school property, in a school district-operated vehicle, or at a related activity or school-sponsored event.

Cyberbullying is described in the Texas Educational Code [37.218] as electronic communications made through an electronic communications device to intimidate or bully another person. Communications made by one person to another may be made via social media sites or text messages from one person to another.

If convicted of either bullying or cyberbullying, students may face criminal charges in some circumstances in addition to consequences determined by the school or Board of Education.

Harassment is a crime that occurs when an individual does any of the following to someone else:

  • Intentionally communicates a proposal that another person is likely to consider obscene
  • Speaks or writes threatening statements
  • Makes a false report
  • Sends messages or calls to torment, harass, embarrass, annoy, or alarm

Depending on the specific circumstances, harassment is a Class A or Class B misdemeanor [Texas Penal Code Section 42.07].

Disruptive Activities are a criminal offense that occurs when a person threatens or uses force in order to:

  • Obstruct or impede people moving throughout a school
  • Prevent/attempt to prevent other persons from engaging in a school assembly
  • Restrain or obstruct an individual’s entrance or departure from a school

If convicted of a disruptive activities charge, the offender faces Class B misdemeanor penalties [Texas Penal Code Section 37.123].

Don’t risk a conviction an online impersonation charge or a related charge.

Differences Between Online Impersonation and Similar Crimes

Although many reviewers believe that it’s difficult to get convicted of an online impersonation charge, Section 33.07 (c) says that the convict faces Class A misdemeanor penalties or a third-degree felony if defendant acts with the intention to obtain a response of emergency personnel. Section 33.07 (d) says that, if convicted of an online impersonation charge, the offender may face prosecution under related laws and therefore be prosecuted under the online impersonation statute, the other law, or both laws.

If convicted of a Class A misdemeanor in Texas, the defendant faces up one 12 months in jail, a maximum fine of $4,000, or jail time plus fines. [Texas Penal Code Section 12.21] If convicted of a third-degree felony, the defendant faces a minimum of two years and a maximum of 10 years in prison plus a maximum fine of $10,000. [Texas Penal Code Section 12.34]

If convicted of bullying or cyberbullying in Texas, the defendant faces possibilities of both civil liabilities and criminal punishments. A civil lawsuit doesn’t include jail time. A citizen files a civil lawsuit against another citizen. If the court declares that the defendant is guilty of the crime, monetary damages are awarded to the plaintiff.

Either charge could result in a defamation lawsuit. A defamation lawsuit means that one party believes that another person published false information or made false statements that resulted in his or her harm. Punitive damages may be assessed to penalize the guilty party. It’s possible in that case for the injured party to place liens on the defendant’s bank accounts and other assets.

What to Do If You’re Accused of Online Impersonation or a Related Crime

To date, many people believe it’s difficult to get convicted of an online impersonation charge. However, it’s important to realize that 1) the law is relatively new in Texas and 2) more people use online websites and tools to communicate every day. Without discipline and restraint, many people abuse the freedom of presumed anonymity to address imagined wrongs and gain unfair access to information.

Don’t risk the associated or cumulative penalties of an online impersonation, harassment, bullying, cyberbullying, or disruptive activities charge. Protect your good name. A permanent criminal record can affect where you work as well as future job and educational opportunities. Contact a board-certified criminal defense attorney for a free, confidential initial case evaluation. The Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky is standing by to take your call.

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