What is the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Harassment in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Aug 13, 2015 | 0 Comments

Confusion related to criminal law versus civil law is not unusual.  For example, how is it possible for there to be both criminal as well as civil harassment cases occurring from the same act? The answer lies within the distinct purposes of the criminal and civil court systems. 

In a civil case, an individual files a lawsuit in civil court in order to be financially compensated for damage done to him or her by another.  Civil courts also may order injunctions requiring another party to cease any harmful behavior.

In California, the tort of civil harassment includes:

  • Assault;
  • Battery;
  • Stalking;
  • Threatening violence.

The threat of violence must be credible enough that a reasonable person would be afraid for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family. The individual filing the civil harassment lawsuit is generally seeking a monetary award either by settlement or jury verdict.

In contrast, criminal harassment charges are brought by the county/state in criminal court for the purpose of imposing a punishment for the commission of a crime.  This punishment may be in the form of probation, community service, fines or a jail or prison term.


Behavior that constitutes criminal harassment is defined in California Penal Codes 646.9(a) and 422(a). California Penal Code 646.9(a) defines the crime of stalking as willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly following, harassing or making a credible threat to another with the intent of placing that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family.

Possible punishments for stalking are one or a combination of the following:

  • A fine of no more than one thousand dollars;
  • Imprisonment in a county jail for no more than one year;
  • Imprisonment in the state prison.

California Penal Code 422(a)  makes it unlawful for to willfully threaten to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person. Violation of this law could result in imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison.

Criminal harassment is a serious offense requiring a competent criminal defense attorney to protect your rights. Contact us in order to receive experienced legal representation.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).


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