A look at Florida's new cyberstalking statute
At our law firm, we represent people involved in actual or alleged domestic violence. Sometimes these situations arise in connection with divorce or child custody proceedings and other times between people who are dating, living together or in other close or family relationships. We represent clients who have experienced domestic violence or abuse or who fear it may occur as well as clients who have been accused of domestic violence, stalking, threats, abuse or similar acts.
Of course, a new and ever-evolving kind of threatening behavior is harassment by electronic means such as via text messages, emails, online messaging platforms, social media and others. Florida cases have recognized that electronic harassment, sometimes called cyberstalking, can be a form of domestic violence.
Florida cyberstalking laws
Florida passed its current anti-stalking statute in 1992. During a time of rising awareness and in response to a call from the federal government that states incorporate cyberstalking into their criminal laws, Florida added cyberstalking to its stalking statute in 2003.
The statute defines cyberstalking as "engag[ing] in a course of conduct to communicate ... words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose."
The "course of conduct" must be a "pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, which evidences a continuity of purpose."
Cyberstalking is a crime
When someone "willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly ... cyberstalks another person," the stalker commits the crime of stalking, a first-degree misdemeanor. The statute also describes related behaviors that make the crime more severe. For example, if cyberstalking is accompanied by a credible verbal or nonverbal threat that causes "reasonable fear" for the victim's safety or that of family members or friends, the crime of aggravated stalking is committed, a third-degree felony.
In 2015, Florida also created the crime of sexual cyberharassment for posting explicit images of a victim online. The victim may sue for an injunction, money damages and legal fees and costs.
Any Floridian who has been the victim of cyberstalking or has been accused of it should seek legal advice as soon as possible to understand what legal options are available in response.
In Part 2 of this post, we will talk about protective orders against cyberstalking that victims may request from state courts.