What Is Cyberstalking in Texas?
Cyberstalking occurs when a person uses electronic communication devices to harass or stalk someone. Although the crime of “stalking” has been prosecuted in the courtroom for many years, it has only recently been linked to the Internet.
“Stalking” occurs when a person continually engages in the harassment of another human with the express purpose of causing either fear or distress. In the years before the Internet became a popular mode of communication, those accused of stalking might have sent unwanted and frightening letters through the mail or sent distressing phone calls.
When you are accused of cyberstalking, you are being accused of using the Internet, social media or cell phone to create fear. The difference between “stalking” and “cyberstalking” is the virtual nature of the threatening or frightening messages.
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Examples of Cyberstalking
Since cyberstalking can be committed using a variety of technological devices, software and hardware, it can take on a multitude of forms. Cyberstalking may include (but is not limited to):
- Online bullying
- Unwanted online sexual comments
- Abuse through Facebook, Twitter or other social media channels
- False accusations
- Purposeful attempts to harm another’s reputation online
- Inappropriate contact with a person under the age of 18
Is Cyberstalking a State or Federal Crime?
When you are accused of cyberstalking, one of the concerns that will affect your potential punishments is whether the crime is charged as a state or federal crime. The answer is unfortunately not simple, as there are both state and federal laws that forbid cyberstalking.
The federal law that governs cyberstalking is 18 U.S. Code § 2261A. This federal law is a broad one that covers all types of stalking, but it does specifically address cyberstalking through electronic devices. Additionally, any criminal activity that passes through state borders is a federal offense. If you used your computer to commit cyberstalking of someone who lives in another state, you could easily face federal charges.
In 2001, the state of Texas passed The Electronic Communications Act. This act specifically addresses all of the following:
- Other forms of online abuse
Texas Laws Against Cyberbullying
The laws in Texas that focus on cyberbullying are primarily focused on school-age children. Although adults can be charged with cyberbullying under other cyberstalking laws, Texas Education Code §37.0832 addresses students engaging in crime. The code labels cyberbullying as any of the following activities:
- Written or verbal comments
- A physical act or electronic communication
- Causes harm or a “reasonable fear” of harm
Under this code, both the accused student and the parents must be notified. An additional Texas law, David’s Law, makes it clear that cyberbullying does not have to occur on a school campus in order for the student to face consequences.
There is also a legal distinction between cyberstalking and cyberbullying. The primary difference between the two crimes is the age of the person being accused. Children under the age of 18 are likely to be accused of cyberbullying, while those who are over the age of 18 are more likely to be accused of cyberstalking.
Penalties of a Federal Cyberstalking Charge
If you are convicted of a federal cyberstalking crime in Texas, the penalties can be much more severe than if you had been prosecuted under state law. Federal cyberstalking carries the potential for life in prison if your cyberstalking resulted in the loss of life.
If the cyberstalking resulted in a permanent or life-threatening injury, you may face up to 20 years in prison. Other serious injuries can result in up to 10 years in prison, while all other federal cyberstalking convictions can result in up to five years in prison.
Serious fines can also accompany federal cyberstalking convictions.
What Are the Penalties for State Cyberstalking Convictions in Texas?
Unlike federal convictions, which are always listed as felonies, state cyberstalking charges can be either misdemeanors or felonies.
For most “cyberbullying” accusations, the charge will be a Class A or B misdemeanor, which can result in fees of up to $10,000 and up to a year in jail.
Some cyberstalking charges can also be prosecuted as a Class B misdemeanor. However, the prosecution can seek to charge you with a third-degree felony, which can result in up to 10 years in prison and heavy fees of up to $10,000. If convicted of a felony, your right to vote and hold certain jobs may be revoked.
Whether a cyberstalking charge is a misdemeanor or a felony is dependent upon many other circumstances, such as the severity of the victim’s experience, how long the stalking lasted and whether you have previous cyberstalking charges against you.
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Defenses Used Against Cyberstalking Charges
One of the most common defenses used against allegations of cyberstalking is the right to free speech. Other successful arguments have focused on the perception of “reasonable fear.” What constitutes reasonable fear, and was it really applicable in this situation?
What Should You Do If You’ve Been Accused of Cyberstalking in Texas?
The cyberstalking laws and penalties in Texas are extremely complex. You could face as little as 180 days in jail or as much as 20 years in prison, depending upon the exact charge the prosecution decides to use against you. In order to make sure that your rights are protected while navigating this complex legal area, contact our office immediately to discuss your case.