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Cyberstalking explained by Tampa Attorneys

Cyberstalking is a serious criminal offense under Florida law. The frequency in which the crime is alleged is growing as we become more dependent on the technologies used to commit the offense. The internet provides a feeling of remaining anonymous which can cause someone to say something on-line which they might never say in person.

The statutes governing stalking and cyberstalking are incredibly vague which allows for seemingly selective or arbitrary enforcement by law enforcement officers.

If you have been charged with any stalking or cyberstalking crime in Tampa, Hillsborough County, or a surrounding county in Florida, then contact an experienced criminal defense attorney at the Sammis Law Firm.

Our attorneys are experienced in fighting these types of misdemeanor and felony charges throughout the Tampa Bay area including Pinellas County, Polk County, Pasco County, and Hernando County, Florida.


Types of Cyberstalking Charges

A criminal charge for cyberstalking can involve communications over the internet, cyberspace, through text messages, or other electronic communications for any of the following acts:

  • cyberbullying (or cyber bullying);
  • masquerading as the victim on-line;
  • annonymously posting private information about another person;
  • texting sexually provocative information or pictures (sexting); and
  • on-line sexual harassment.

Allegations of cyberstalking have increased radically as certain technologies become more common. Those technologies can include the following:

  • e-mail messages;
  • text messaging,
  • blog or website postings; and
  • postings on social media profiles such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube.

Proving Cyberstalking under Florida Law

In many of these cyberstalking cases, proving the true identity of the author of the messages is difficult. The law enforcement officers will question the suspect in hopes of obtaining a confession. Always talk to a criminal defense attorney before making any statements after you learn of a criminal investigation for stalking or cyberstalking.

Proving who sent the communication is often difficult because any person willing to engage in such behavior may also be willing to frame another likely suspect. Even a basic understanding of certain technologies such as text messaging can make it possible to frame another person in order to hide the identity of the person actually committing the crime. 

In other cases, communications between ex-lovers that would normally be considered rude or annoying may now result in a criminal investigation. Furthermore, former business associates or competitors may also threaten to disclose confidential or embarrassing information about another person or company. These cases hinge on whether any "legitimate purpose" existed for sending the communication other than harassment.

In certain case, the individual has a right to free speech under the Constitution of the United States that is violated by attempts to prosecute the acts under Florida law or federal law for the criminal offense of cyberstalking. Important defenses exist to fight these types of charges.


Cyberstalking Statutory Definitions under Florida Law

"Cyberstalk" is a form of a criminal offense called stalking. Cyberstalking is defined under Florida law, Section 784.048, as causing series of communications which include words, pictures, images, or language through the use of any electronic means such as e-mail, the internet, phone text messaging targeted at a specific person, which causes that person "substantial emotional distress" and serves "no legitimate purpose."

Cyberstalking in Florida is a first degree misdemeanor punishable by 12 months in the county jail, and a $1,000.00 fine for each alleged act. It is generally classified as a violent crime. Many of these cases also involve allegations of domestic violence.

The term "substantial emotion distress" is not defined under Florida law, however, other courts, interpreting the same words, have concluded that "the offending conduct must be such as would produce a considerable or significant amount of emotional distress in a reasonable person; something markedly greater than the level of uneasiness, nervousness, unhappiness or the like which are commonly experienced in day to day living," Wallace v. Van Pelt, 969 S.W.2d 380, 386 (Mo. Ct. App. 1998), and as meaning "something more than everyday mental distress or upset. In other words [it] entails a serious invasion of the victim's mental tranquility." People v. Ewing, 76 Cal. App. 4th 199, 210 (1999).


Aggravated Cyberstalking under Florida Law

Florida law defines "Aggravated Cyberstalking" as a credible threat made with the intention of placing the person in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death for the person or the person's immediate family member, Aggravated cyberstalking is a third degree felony, punishable by five years in Florida State Prison and a five thousand dollar fine.

A "credible threat" is a threat against the life of the person or a threat to cause bodily injury to the person which is made with the intent to cause the person to reasonably fear for his or her safety.

Aggravated cyberstalking under Florida law can also be alleged if the defendant is subject to an injunction or retraining order protection against domestic violence, repeat violence, sexual violence, or dating violence, or after any "no contact" provision is imposed by the court (such as a bond condition), and maliciously, knowingly and willfully cyberstalks the person subject to the court order of protection.

Cyberstalking is also aggravated if it is directed at a person under the age of 16. Any instance of cyberstalking directed at a child or minor under the age of 16 can therefore be charged as a third degree felony which carries with it a maximum possible punishment of five years in Florida State Prison.

Many of these cases also involve the complaining witness requesting a protective order or injunction for protection against domestic violence, repeat violence, dating violence or stalking violence.


Cyberstalking under Federal Law

Section 2261A is an interstate stalking statute originally passed as part of the Violence against Women's Act. See Pub.L. No. 104-201, Div. A, Title X, § 1069(a), 110 Stat. 2422, 2655 (1996). Subsequent amendments to the statute significantly broadened the scope of the law.

The federal cyberstalking statute under 18 U.S.C. Section 2261A(2)(B) requires a person to act with the intent to kill, injure, or harass, and when he or she “uses the mail, any interactive computer service, or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce to engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress to [another] person or places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to” that person, that person's immediate family, or that person's spouse or intimate partner.

Any person who commits this crime can be fined and imprisoned in a federal penitentiary for, at the least, up to five years. If the stalking results in the death of the victim, the perpetrator can be imprisoned for life.

Under the federal statute, the government must show that the accused traveled in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent to kill, injure, or harass another person and that “in the course of, or as a result of, such travel,” the accused placed his target in reasonable apprehension of harm to herself or a family member.

Under the 2006 amended version of the federal cyberstalking statute, the requisite intent no longer was limited to an intent to “kill or injure,” but was broadened to include the intent to “harass or place under surveillance with the intent to ... harass or intimidate or cause substantial emotional distress.” See United States v. Cassidy, 814 F.Supp.2d 574 (2011). In Cassidy, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland found the cyberstalking statue unconstitutional as applied.

The court found the "requisite action was also broadened so as to bring within the scope of the law a course of conduct that merely “causes substantial emotional distress.” instead of requiring that the course of conduct places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. Id. The Cassidy Court also noted that the 2006 amendment to the statute expanded the mechanisms of injury to add use of an “interactive computer service” to the existing list which already included use of mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce.


Additional Resources on Cyberstalking Crimes

Secure Florida - Cyberstalking - Secure Florida is an awareness and education group developed by the Florida Infrastructure Protection Center (FIPC), and the private sector.

Provides legal definitions, cyberstalking stories, cyberstalking statistics, tips on avoiding cyberstalking, and information on what you do if you believe you are being cyber stalked.

Report on Cyberstalking: A new Challenge for Law Enforcement - Discusses an existing problem aggravated by a new technology. The anonymity of the Internet also provides new opportunities for would-be cyberstalkers. The true identity of a cyberstalker can be concealed by using different screen names or ISP addresses.

Law enforcement is difficult because individuals can use anonymous remailers which make it nearly impossible to prove the true identity of the author e-mail or other electronic message. Attempts to frame an innocent individual for cyberstalking can also present problems for law enforcement officers for all of the same reasons.


Finding an Attorney for Cyberstalking Charges

If you have been charged with cyberstalking or aggravated cyberstalking under Florida law, then contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer at the Sammis Law Firm. Talk with an attorney about the best way to defend yourself against an accusation of cyberstalking in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, including Hillsborough County, Pinellas County, Hernando County, Manatee County, Pasco County, or Polk County, FL. Call 813-250-0500 to discuss your case with an attorney today.

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