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What Is the Penalty for Cyberstalking?

By Hager & Schwartz, P.A.

November 10, 2021

Cyberstalking is a crime under federal and state laws. The penalties that can be imposed for a conviction range from up to 1 year in jail to life imprisonment, depending on the jurisdiction the offense falls under and the nature of the offense.

Before you start worrying that you have committed a state or federal crime because you searched someone online, it is important to understand what cyberstalking is. The term "cyberstalking" is commonly used when talking about looking up somebody on the internet or going through someone’s social media posts frequently. This type of conduct meets neither the state’s nor the federal government’s definition of a cyberstalking offense. As long as your behavior stays innocent, meaning you do not engage in the conduct with ill will, you likely will not be facing criminal charges.

Having online contact with someone raises to the level of a cyberstalking crime only when your behavior turns harassing. In other words, if you frequently communicate with another person on the internet, and your conversations or posts cause fear or emotional distress in that individual, you can be prosecuted under state or federal law. The entity with jurisdiction over your case depends on how the offense occurred.

What Is Florida’s Cyberstalking Law?

Under Florida law, you could be accused of cyberstalking if you continually communicate with another person, regardless of the duration of that communication. In other words, you may be committing an offense if you harass someone online over the course of two days, two months, or two years. If you engage in a series of acts that suggest "continuity of purpose" (Florida Statute § 784.048), that’s cyberstalking.

Constantly communicating with another person is not the only element of Florida’s cyberstalking law. Your communication must also be willful and malicious and cause or be likely to cause "substantial emotional distress" and have "no legitimate purpose." It does not matter how the communication occurs – by words or images, directly or indirectly – if the other person might reasonably fear that they are in danger of harm, they could report you for cyberstalking.

What Is the Federal Cyberstalking Law?

The federal cyberstalking law (18 U.S.C. § 2261A(2)) is similar to Florida’s statute. It provides that a person commits an offense when they use a computer service or electronic device to exchange harmful communication with another person. Additionally, the purpose of the communication is to kill, harass, injure, or intimidate the other individual.

Under the federal statute, the communication must also place the other person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury or be likely to cause substantial emotional distress.

Note that under federal law, you could be accused of cyberstalking if you make the person you are communicating with believe that they or anyone else is in danger of harm. Thus, making a threat against the individual’s friends or family members can bring federal charges. Also, threatening that person’s pet, service animal, or horse can raise online communication to the level of cyberstalking.

Where the offense occurred distinguishes state cyberstalking from federal. If the conduct stays within Florida’s borders, it remains a state matter. However, if it in any way affects interstate or foreign commerce (for instance, if you are in Florida and communicating with someone in California), it becomes a federal case.

What Are Examples of Cyberstalking?

As noted before, simply searching for a person online or going through their social media is not considered cyberstalking. So what is? State and federal definitions of cyberstalking allow for a range of conduct to be considered a crime.

Generally, the following acts may be prosecuted as cyberstalking:

  • Sending frightening or unwanted messages to the other person,
  • Constantly having unwanted gifts or items sent to the other person,
  • Threatening harm against the individual or someone they’re close to,
  • Spreading rumors about the person online.

Recently, a 28-year-old Valrico man was charged with federal cyberstalking. Prosecutors allege that between January of 2020 and July of 2021, he sent threatening messages to three different people. Allegedly, he said that he intended to kill the victims or their loved ones and used racial slurs. He also said that he would harm them if they went to the police. The prosecutors state that his messages made the victims fear for the safety of themselves and others.

What Is the Sentence for Cyberstalking?

The length of imprisonment imposed for cyberstalking depend on whether it falls under state or federal jurisdiction and the nature of the offense.

Under Florida law, cyberstalking is generally a first-degree misdemeanor, with penalties including up to 1 year in jail.

However, the crime becomes a third-degree felony punishable by up to 5 years of imprisonment under the following conditions:

  • The alleged offender makes a credible threat,
  • The alleged offender was under an injunction and committed the offense against the protected person, or
  • The alleged victim was a child under 16 years of age.

The penalties for federal cyberstalking are tied to the result of the offense, meaning the level of harm the victim or any other person suffered:

  • If death resulted, the maximum prison term is life.
  • If permanent disfigurement or life-threatening bodily injury resulted, the maximum prison term is 20 years.
  • If serious bodily injury resulted or the alleged offender used a dangerous weapon, the maximum prison term is 10 years.
  • In all other cases, the maximum prison term is 5 years.

Hire an Attorney for Your Case

Whether you have engaged in the alleged conduct or have been falsely accused, if you were accused of cyberstalking, various avenues may be explored to fight the charge. Presenting a compelling defense and seeking to avoid or minimize penalties requires the help of a skilled lawyer.

At Hager & Schwartz, P.A., our Miami attorneys have nearly 50 years of combined experience, including time spent as former prosecutors. We have the know-how to aggressively challenge serious cybercrime allegations.

Schedule an immediate consultation by calling us at (954) 840-8713 or contacting us online today.