Cyberbullying And Cyberstalking Laws In Washington

by ECL Writer
Is Cyberstalking A Crime In Washington?

In an age where technology is an integral part of our daily lives, the virtual world can be as perilous as the physical one. With the advent of the internet, we have gained unprecedented access to information, communication, and connectivity. However, this digital realm has also birthed new forms of harassment and abuse that extend beyond the boundaries of traditional confrontations. Cyberbullying and cyberstalking, insidious acts of intimidation and harassment carried out online, have become pressing issues in today’s society.

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, so do the laws that govern it. This article delves into the complex and evolving legal landscape of Washington State, shedding light on the regulations and protections in place to combat cyberbullying and cyberstalking. Understanding these laws is not only crucial for the safety and well-being of individuals but also for fostering a digital environment that promotes civility and respect.

Elements Of Cyberstalking

There are three types of cyberstalking, all of which involve the intention of intimidating or harassing another individual. The first is by using lewd, obscene, or indecent language or imagery, or by making suggestions that a lewd or lascivious act has been committed. The second type of communication, regardless of whether a dialogue actually takes place, is anonymous or repetitive. Threats of harm to a person, their property, or the person’s family make up the third. When all three of these criteria are met, the behavior qualifies as a gross misdemeanor, which carries a maximum 364-day jail sentence and a $5,000 fine.


Cyberbullying And Cyberstalking Laws In Washington

A person who uses electronic communications to harass or stalk another person may be charged with cyberstalking, stalking, or harassment by electronic communication. Among other forms of electronic communication, there is email, texting, and instant messaging. The consequences of a conviction in some circumstances could include lengthy periods of jail.

Harassment by Electronic Communication: Crimes and Penalties

By using language or actions to threaten another person with bodily injury (immediate or future), property destruction, physical restraint, or any other malicious act involving significant harm, the offender engages in harassment through electronic communications. For instance, persistently sending sexual SMS messages without permission can be considered electronic harassment.

In general, harassing someone through electronic communication is a serious offense. Penalties for this kind of violation include a $5,000 fine and up to 364 days in prison. Repeat offenders, those who are subject to no-contact orders, and those who make death threats may face more severe criminal charges.

Cyberstalking: Crimes and Penalties

When someone uses electronic communications (other than a phone) to harass, intimidate, torture, or embarrass someone else, that person has committed cyberstalking. Using vulgar, indecent, or obscene language or imagery; carrying out these deeds covertly or regularly; or making threats against the victim, a member of their family or home, or their property are the three methods defendants accomplish this.

According to Washington law, cyberstalking is a severe misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, when the following occurs, prosecutors may pursue cyberstalking as a class C felony:

  • violates a no-contact or no-harassment order and the bully has been convicted of previously harassing the victim or someone in the victim’s family, or
  • involves a threat to kill the victim or someone else.

A class C felony carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail and a fine of $10,000.

(Note: Because a portion of the cyberstalking law was declared unlawful by a federal court, certain communication that fits into the aforementioned categories may be protected speech. On the legality of this statute, seek legal advice.)

Felony Cyberstalking

The offense is upgraded to a Class C felony when the aforementioned criteria are met, the offender has either previously been found guilty of harassing the victim or the victim’s family or the behavior poses a danger to kill the victim or anyone else. As a category III offense, the penalty would be a minimum of 1-3 months in jail, but if there was a history of domestic violence or other felonies, the sentence could swiftly increase to prison time.

Stalking: Crime and Penalties

In Washington, cyberbullying may also lead to charges under the state’s stalking law when the following conditions are met by the perpetrator:

  • Deliberately and repeatedly (at least twice) engages in harassment or surveillance of another individual, which includes the use of electronic communications.
  • Causes the victim to reasonably feel scared, intimidated, or bothered.
  • Demonstrates intent to provoke this reaction or has knowledge, or should have known, that this reaction would likely result from their actions.

Stalking typically falls under the category of a gross misdemeanor. However, it can escalate to a class B felony in specific circumstances, such as when the offender has a prior stalking conviction or possesses a deadly weapon. Consequences for a class B felony stalking conviction may include a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of $20,000.

Hate Crime Offense

The prosecution can file an extra felony charge for a hate crime offense if a cyberbully threatens someone based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or handicap. The bully must appear to be able to follow through on their threat in order for there to be a conviction. A class C felony conviction awaits someone who commits a hate crime. They risk up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine if this happens.


Forms Of Cyber Communication

Any electronic communication other than telephone contact is considered a form of cyberstalking under the law. For the purposes of this statute, “electronic communication” includes contact by email, texts, messaging services, social media, and messaging applications.

Additionally, the location where the violation was committed can be either the location where the transmission was sent or received. Law enforcement has sole discretion over it. In many cases, law enforcement will choose to file charges in the tougher jurisdiction or the jurisdiction where it will be most difficult for the accused to present a strong defense.

Defenses To Cyberbullying And Cyberstalking

Those who are accused of bullying and are facing criminal charges may be able to assert one or more of the following defenses, depending on the specifics.

Unreasonable Reaction by Victim

Depending on the situation, a person accused of a crime involving cyberbullying may be able to argue that the victim’s response was irrational as a defense. For instance, stalking requires that the defendant’s actions frighten, intimidate, or otherwise worry the victim in a reasonable manner. Therefore, activity does not meet the criteria for criminal stalking if the victim was overly sensitive to it and it would not have elicited the appropriate response in a reasonable person under similar circumstances.

Free Speech

An essential but constrained freedom, free expression is safeguarded by the US Constitution. When speech (words and accompanying behaviors) is likely to be immediately dangerous to others, the government has the right to punish it. Examples include making what are sometimes considered to as terrorist threats and erroneously shouting “fire!” in a packed theater. Because the distinction between protected and unlawful communication is not always obvious, it may be permissible in some situations to consider a free-speech defense.

Will Teenagers Facing Cyberbullying And Cyberstalking Charges

Both minors and adults may be accused of cyberbullying or cyberstalking, however depending on their age, they will be tried in different courts. While most adolescents aged 17 and younger are subject to the state’s juvenile justice system, teenagers aged 18 and 19 will be charged in adult criminal court. Under certain conditions, a child who is 15 years old or older may be moved to an adult court in Washington.

Due to the juvenile justice system’s emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, judges in juvenile courts typically have more discretion in sentencing than judges in adult courts. Counseling, a community service or labor program, an educational program, or imprisonment in a juvenile facility are all potential punishment options within the juvenile justice system. Instead of a criminal conviction, the kid obtains an adjudication of delinquency in juvenile court.

Anti-Bullying School Policies

Every school district in Washington is required by law to adopt a policy and practice that forbids bullying, intimidation, and harassment of any student. These regulations are intended to safeguard pupils on an individual basis and to prevent the negative impacts of bullying and cyberbullying on the learning environment. The law permits the student’s expulsion and suspension for transgressions involving criminal behavior.

Civil Lawsuits for Cyberbullying

As you’ve read, cyberbullies may experience consequences at school and occasionally in court. A victim of cyberbullying may also file a legal lawsuit to seek compensation for the psychological, social, or financial harm the violation caused. The injury done to the victim will determine how much money is awarded in damages. For instance, a civil court judge may mandate that a cyberbully reimburse the victim’s therapy costs for the emotional suffering they caused.

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