Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What Counts as "Stalking" in California?

"Stalking" is one of those legal terms that seems to be misapplied more often than it's used correctly.  I see litigants throw it around loosely to describe any behavior that involves "following", "confronting" or "encountering by chance in a public place" if that behavior makes them feel uncomfortable.

The legal definition of "stalking", though, is a little more narrow.  Section 646.9 of the California Penal Code spells out the elements and the intent that must be proven before a person can be found guilty of the crime of stalking.  Here's the short version:
  • "Stalking" involves repeated following or harassing behavior. 
  • The following or harassing must be "willful" and "malicious". 
  • AND, the person doing the following must make a credible threat with the intent to place the victim in reasonable fear for his or her safety.  
The crime of "stalking", then, involves more than merely following, researching, investigating or surveilling a victim.  Those behaviors may cross the line into "stalking" if the prosecutor can prove that the defendant threatened the victim with the intent to cause fear.  

One element that is NOT included within the legal definition of "stalking" is that the crime be committed in person.  We think of "stalking" as physically following somebody or parking in front of their house, but the crime of stalking may be completed online or even through the mail.  If you send repeated, harassing messages and threats over social media with the intent to cause fear, you may be convicted of stalking in California.  You can be tried in California if the target of your harassment lives here, even if you live out of state.  

Even if your behavior does not technically rise to the level of criminal "stalking", you may still be charged and convicted for some "lesser included offense", like making criminal threats (PC 422), annoying / harassing a minor (PC 647.6), or making repeated phone calls with the intent to harass (PC 647m). That behavior could also form the basis for a restraining order against you if a court finds that it constitutes a "course of conduct" that serves no legitimate purpose except to annoy or to harass the target.  

There are many possible defenses to charges of stalking, but only a qualified attorney can help you determine the best argument for your particular case.  If you or a loved one has questions about stalking in California, call our office for a free attorney consultation. (714) 449-3335. Ask for John.  

Thanks for reading.