Harassment vs. Stalking Laws in Texas
Many laws in the state of Texas are intended to preserve public peace and order. As part of this goal, there are specific laws which are used to protect the safety and privacy of public citizens. This means that some acts, such as harassment and stalking, are criminal activities that can lead to arrest, prosecution and legal penalties.
Harassment and stalking are similar in some regards but they have some important differences. While it is possible for one person to be charged with both of these crimes for one incident, it is also possible for these charges to be applied separate from one another. Read on to find out more about the differences between harassment and stalking charges.
What Is Harassment?
Section 42.07 of the Texas Penal Code states that harassment is an action which is intended to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another person. Specifically, a person can be charged with harassment if they have the intent to annoy, torment or harass another person while doing any of the following actions:
- Making an obscene comment or request
- Making a credible threat to harm another person or to commit a felony against another person or that person’s family or property
- Knowingly making a credible false report that another person has suffered death or bodily injury
- Intentionally making repeated phone calls in order to annoy another person
- Making a telephone call to another person and intentionally failing to hang up or end the call
- Allowing another person to use their phone to make annoying or harassing communications
- Sending repeated electronic communications, such as emails or text messages, in an attempt to harass, annoy or abuse another person
Simply put, harassment refers to any type of communication between one person and another that is done with the intent to frighten, alarm or torment the victim.
For example, Max repeatedly calls and emails his ex-girlfriend to tell her that they should get back together. He calls and texts her a dozen times a day, sometimes simply remaining silent when she answers her phone. He also sends her emails to tell her that her family and friends are sick and in the hospital in order to upset her. Max has committed harassment under Texas law and he may be arrested and charged with a crime.
It’s important to note that while harassment charges are often applied in cases involving a person using an electronic communications device, such as a phone or a computer, these charges can also be filed for direct spoken communication that is harassing or threatening.
What Is Stalking?
While harassment typically involves threatening or annoying communications, stalking charges can be filed for actions that involve making direct, credible threats that place another person in fear of bodily injury or death.
This is somewhat similar to the legal definition of harassment, with a few important differences. In fact, according to the Texas Penal Code, a person can be charged with stalking if they commit an offense that meets the legal definition of harassment if they, on more than one occasion:
- Engage in conduct that can reasonably be perceived as a threat of death or serious bodily injury to another person
- Engage in conduct that can reasonably be perceived as a threat of death or serious injury to a person’s family, property or to the person with whom they are in a dating relationship
- Engage in conduct that a reasonable person would find harassing, annoying, abusing or tormenting or conduct that would place a reasonable person in fear of death or serious bodily injury to themselves, their family, property or their dating partner
For example, Alyssa and Chad dated for two years and then had a very painful breakup. Alyssa begins sending Chad emails stating that his new girlfriend will be harmed, that something bad will happen soon and that Chad’s family will not be safe. Alyssa has demonstrated violent tendencies in the past, leading Chad to believe that she is serious about these threats. Chad calls the police and Alyssa can be arrested on charges of stalking.
While harassment and stalking crimes have similar characteristics, they have some important distinctions. It is true that a person can be charged with stalking if they commit a harassment offense which places another person in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death. However, these two crimes are not always charged together for a single event.
For example, Mark and Allison break up after dating and Allison begins dating a new man. Mark calls Allison and tells her that he is angry with her five times a day. He doesn’t make any credible threats but his behavior is intended to harass, annoy and torment Allison. Mark can be charged with a harassment offense.
However, if Mark begins repeatedly calling both Allison and her new boyfriend and tells them that he will beat them up and damage their property, the charges might change. Although Mark is engaging in behavior that meets the legal definition of harassment, he can also be charged with stalking because he is making credible threats of violence to Allison and her new dating partner.
A conviction for either harassment or stalking can lead to serious legal penalties. Harassment is a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by:
- Up to 180 days in county jail
- A fine of up to $2000
However, if a person is convicted of harassment and they have been convicted on a previous harassment charge in the past, their new charge can be upgraded to a Class A misdemeanor. This is punishable by:
- Up to one year in county jail
- A fine of up to $4000
The punishments for stalking are considerably more serious. A basic stalking charge is a felony of the third degree. This is punishable by:
- Two to 10 years in state prison
- A fine of up to $10,000
A person who is convicted of stalking charges and has a previous conviction for stalking in the past may have their new charge upgraded to second degree felony status. This is punishable by:
- Two to 20 years in state prison
- A fine of up to $10,000
In addition to the penalties listed here, a harassment or stalking conviction may come with additional requirements that the convicted person must follow. This may include a restraining order or a criminal trespassing order that is placed on the convicted person’s victim or their property. If these requirements are violated, several things may happen, including:
- The convicted person’s bail or probation may be revoked
- The convicted person may face new or additional charges
- The convicted person may be ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation or behavior management counseling
In order to convict someone of a harassment or stalking charge, the prosecution must prove each element of the charge to a jury. For this reason, a legal defense may focus on a few specific elements, including:
- The defendant was not responsible for creating or sending the alleged communications or threats
- The alleged victim of the defendant was never in reasonable fear of harm, bodily injury or death
- The alleged victim provoked the defendant into making their harassing statements