Is Stalking A Crime?

A woman on her cellphone with a stalker in the background.

Stalking is sometimes portrayed in thriller movies, and you can see the emotional toll that it has on the victim. Unfortunately, these scenarios often play out in real life as well. Victims of stalking often live in fear for their safety, and these victims may deal with trauma from the incident for the rest of their lives.

Years ago, it was difficult to prosecute stalkers until some physical violence actually occurred. Thankfully, there are now stalking laws in all 50 states that aim to prevent stalking and any violence that might occur as a result. So, just what is stalking, and is it a crime? We will tell you exactly what stalking is, the potential penalties for stalkers, and how you can protect yourself from stalking.


Is Stalking A Crime: Basic Stalking Laws

Is stalking illegal? The answer is yes! Stalking is now a crime in all 50 states across the country. However, what course of conduct actually qualifies as stalking someone? The laws vary slightly from state to state, but many of the general rules are the same. First, stalking is not an isolated incident. Stalking is usually proven through a pattern of behavior. Simply showing up at someone’s house on a single occasion is probably not stalking, but it might rise to that level if it happens repeatedly.

So, what is considered stalking? Generally speaking, stalking occurs when someone repeatedly follows or harasses the victim and makes threats to put the victim in fear for their safety or their family’s safety. It is important to note that not all stalking occurs in person. A stalker might use phone calls or the Internet to carry out the harassment. Cyberstalking has become more prevalent in recent years, and social media has made it easier for stalkers to track their victims. If a reasonable person would be in fear for their safety due to repeated harassment, then the alleged stalker is likely guilty of the crime of stalking.


Examples Of Stalking

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It is sometimes hard to tell what constitutes stalking behavior just by reading the definition of the law. Some practical examples can help illustrate the types of behavior that might qualify as a crime. This list is not exhaustive, and it is not meant to provide any type of legal advice. These examples are only for educational purposes.

We will start with some obvious examples. Suppose someone follows you around and shows up everywhere you happen to be. You have asked them to leave you alone, yet they continue to lurk nearly everywhere you go. They are constantly looking at you, and they might even make harassing comments to you. You are very likely in emotional distress. If there is a reasonable fear for your safety, then that person’s actions would probably qualify as stalking.

For the next example, imagine that someone is sending you text messages with harassing messages about your family members. They also repeatedly call your phone, and sometimes they simply hang up when you answer. If you are in reasonable fear for your safety or the safety of your loved ones, then stalking charges will likely apply. Sometimes, stalking cases involving the phone or Internet are easier to prove because a record of the evidence exists. You would have a record of the stalker’s phone number and copies of the text messages that were sent.

Finally, imagine that someone is constantly sending you gifts. This example could go a couple of different ways. If you receive the gifts and never tell the person to stop sending them, stalking is probably not occurring. However, unwanted gifts can rise to the level of stalking. If you have told the person repeatedly to stop sending you gifts and they continue to send them, they might be stalking you.


Stalking vs. Harassment: What’s The Difference?

Stalking and harassment can be very similar, although there are a few differences between the two. Harassment can occur in a single instance, whereas stalking is always a pattern of behavior. One of the other big differences between the two is the fact that stalking requires the victim to be in fear, while this element is not necessary for harassment. Someone might be found guilty of harassment simply by repeatedly calling or contacting another person, even though the victim has no reasonable fear for their safety. To qualify as stalking, there must either be an intent to cause fear or there must be a reasonable fear.

There are also differences in the punishment for harassment and stalking. Harassment is almost always a second-degree or third-degree misdemeanor offense, and it is usually punishable by no more than one year in jail. In some cases, the maximum jail sentence for harassment is 90 days. However, the penalties for stalking are usually heavier. In some states, the first offense of stalking is a first-degree misdemeanor. Repeated stalking charges can increase the classification to a third-degree felony or worse. Even for first offenses, stalking can result in jail time of up to five years and fines of up to $25,000. The stalking code sections in some states also require the stalker to cover the cost of counseling for the victim.


Remedies Available For Stalking Victims

A woman holding tissues talking to a counselor.

If you are the victim of stalking, you might be wondering what remedies are available to you. One of the main remedies available in these cases is a protective order. A restraining order can be issued by the court that makes it illegal for the stalker to have any contact with the victim. In most cases, the order prohibits the stalker from coming within a certain distance of the victim, and the order also prevents contact through the phone, Internet, mail, or other means. Some victims are hesitant to involve law enforcement or the courts, but stalking is a serious crime and should be treated as such.

Although protective orders are designed to keep the victim safe, remember that these court orders are just legal documents. You should also create your own safety plan to keep yourself or your loved ones safe. While stalking does not always lead to bodily injury, it sometimes does rise to this level. Many stalking cases originate between domestic partners, especially where domestic violence has occurred. Unfortunately, stalking that occurs between intimate partners sometimes results in serious bodily injury. This is why it is extremely important to have a plan in place to keep yourself protected. You should also visit the Stalking Resource Center to learn more about ways that you can keep yourself protected.

Another potential remedy available to victims is counseling. In fact, the stalker might be required to pay for counseling services as part of the sentencing process. Stalking can lead to emotional distress, flashbacks, and other fears for many years. Counseling can sometimes help victims of crime, and you should undoubtedly take advantage of any counseling services available to you.


Punishment For Stalking Charges

So, what is the punishment for the criminal offense of stalking? The answer depends on the state in which you live. The penal codes in each state vary slightly, but stalking is a serious misdemeanor in most states. If there are extenuating circumstances, the charges usually get bumped up to a felony. This often happens when there have been repeated offenses of stalking, weapons are used, serious bodily injury occurs, or a sexual assault occurs as a result of the stalking. Remember the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. A felony can include much more jail time and higher fines. Similarly, remember how long a felony stays on your record. It is there forever!

A first offense of stalking is usually punishable by up to a few years in prison and a serious fine. The stalker might also be required to pay for counseling for the victim, and the stalker will be prohibited from having any contact with the victim in the future. Repeated stalking offenses or stalking that includes injury can result in up to 20 years in prison, along with hefty fines and restraining orders. This area of criminal law has gotten a lot of attention lately, and the state legislatures and courts have been quick to impose serious penalties for these offenses.


The Bottom Line

Stalking is a serious crime that occurs through a pattern of behavior when the stalker repeatedly follows or contacts the victim with the intent to put them in fear or distress. Stalking is targeted toward a specific person, and the stalker sometimes extends their actions to family members of the target. Law enforcement takes stalking seriously, and the crime may be punishable by several years in prison — even for a first offense. If you are the victim of stalking, make sure that you have a plan in place to keep you and your family safe in the event that things escalate. Inform your co-workers or neighbors of the situation so that they can help you keep an eye out for your stalker.


Frequently Asked Questions


What is the criminal definition of stalking?

The criminal stalking definition varies slightly between different states. However, stalking must always include repeated behavior. Generally, stalking occurs when someone willfully and repeatedly follows or contacts another person with the intent to put them in fear of their safety. Stalking can occur on public property, on the victim’s property, via telephone, over the Internet, or even by sending unwanted gifts. No bodily injury is necessary for the crime of stalking to occur, although stalking sometimes escalates to bodily harm.


What are the categories of stalking?

There are different categories of stalking, depending on the details of the crime. A basic stalking offense is usually categorized as a first-degree misdemeanor. These offenses are usually punishable by a year or more in jail and significant fines. Stalking can also become a third-degree, second-degree, or first-degree felony. This often occurs when there is bodily injury, sexual assault, or deadly weapons involved.


What is the definition of cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking is typically defined as repeated electronic communication with the intent to harass or frighten the victim. Cyberstalking often occurs through social media or email. However, it could also involve text messages or other electronic communication. Cyberstalking includes all the same elements as traditional stalking, although cyberstalking is limited to those activities which occur through electronic means.