With the proliferation of the internet and social media, communicating with others through electronic means has essentially become the norm. And just as the way people interact with each other has evolved, so too has the way offenses, such as stalking, are committed. Traditionally, a person could be accused of stalking if they engaged in a course of conduct that put another in reasonable fear of harm or caused emotional distress. This pattern of behavior typically occurred physically, meaning that the alleged actor was in the actual presence of the other person.
Many stalking offenses now involve the use of electronic means to continually communicate with another person in a way that causes harm or emotional distress. Essentially, the difference between a stalking and a cyberstalking offense is how the conduct is carried out. However, the underlying impacts to the alleged victim are generally the same.
Both state and federal laws prohibit cyberstalking. Whereas Florida’s cyberstalking law pertains to conduct occurring within the state’s borders, federal law is concerned with behavior that crosses state lines. Because electronic communications are likely to affect interstate commerce – for instance, a person in Florida might contact someone in California through direct message on social media – many cyberstalking crimes fall under federal jurisdiction.
The Federal Cyberstalking Law
The federal law concerning cyberstalking is 18 U.S.C. § 2261A(2). It provides that it’s unlawful for any person to engage in a course of conduct through electronic communication that makes another individual reasonably fear death or serious bodily harm to themselves or another (including a pet or service animal). The behavior may also be illegal if it causes or could cause “substantial emotional distress.” A course of conduct means two or more acts suggesting that the individual has or will continue the behavior.
For a person’s actions to be considered cyberstalking under federal law, they must have carried them out with the intent to:
- Intimidate, or
- Surveil the other with the intent to do any of the above.
The Federal Cyberstalking Law and Sextortion
Another offense that is increasingly being committed in the digital age is what is referred to as sextortion. The crime occurs when a person has access to explicit or nude photos and/or images of another, and they threaten to disseminate them. The alleged actor is typically looking to obtain something of value from the victim. For instance, an individual might say they’re going to text their ex’s nude photos to family and friends unless their ex gives them a certain amount of money.
It does not matter if the person threatening to expose the images received them willingly, meaning the alleged victim voluntarily sent the nude or explicit images to the other person. If the actor does not have permission to send the images to others, they could be accused of committing a federal crime.
The Penalties for Cyberstalking and Sextortion
Because cyberstalking and sextortion are charged under the same federal laws, the penalties for both are the same. The exact punishments a court can impose depend on the type of harm the victim suffered.
Below are the potential conviction penalties for cyberstalking:
- Death results: Up to life in prison
- Permanent disfigurement or life-threatening injury results: Up to 20 years in prison
- Serious bodily injury results or a dangerous weapon was used to commit the offense: Up to 10 years in prison
- All other circumstances: Up to 5 years in prison
In addition to imprisonment, the court may also order the alleged offender to pay a $250,000 fine.
A lot is at stake in a federal cyberstalking case, which is why you need aggressive defense on your side.