Is Cyber-Harassment a Crime in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Dec 23, 2015 | 0 Comments

Computer crimes and cyber-crimes are getting a lot of attention lately from both law enforcement and the media. But people are still--justifiably--confused about just what kind of online behavior can land them in jail.

Here's a brief rundown of the most important cyber-bullying/cyber-harassment laws that ordinary people need to be aware of:

Cyberstalking. There is technically no cyberstalking law in California. Instead, cyberstalking is treated as a form of ordinary stalking under Penal Code 646.9 PC.

 A person commits the crime of cyberstalking if s/he harasses or threatens another person, to the point where that person fears for his/her safety or the safety of his/her family, using media like the Internet, email and even text messages. 

Cyberstalking is a serious crime in California. Depending on the circumstances, it can be charged as a misdemeanor OR a felony--and a felony conviction can lead to up to five (5) years in state prison.

Indirect cyber-harassment/posting harmful information on the Internet. Penal Code 653.2 PC, California's law against posting harmful information on the internet, deals with a very specific scenario: One person posts another person's personal information, or a harmful message about him/her, on the Internet, or circulates it via email, with the intent to incite other people to harass or injure him/her. 

This law can be used to punish people who engage in online "slut-shaming" or other kinds of online bullying. A person can be guilty under PC 653.2 even if the "victim" never actually experiences harassment at the hands of people who read the harmful message about him/her.

Harmful internet postings is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum county jail sentence of (1) year.

Revenge porn. Penal Code 647(j)(4) PC "revenge porn" is a very new criminal offense--the California legislature just passed this law in 2013.

"Revenge porn" occurs when someone intentionally distributes sexually explicit images of another person (typically though not necessarily on the internet), with the intent to cause him/her emotional distress. 

The typical revenge porn case involves a defendant who used to be in a romantic relationship with the "victim" and through that relationship acquired sexual photos or videos of him/her. After the relationship ends or hits a rocky patch, the defendant distributes those images in an attempt to humiliate and "get back at" the victim.

Many people are shocked to learn that this is a crime--but it is in fact a California misdemeanor. The maximum county jail sentence is six (6)  months for a first offense, and one (1) year if this is not a first offense or if the victim is a minor. (Also refer to our article, "Can Bullies Claim Self-defense to Fight Criminal Charges in California?")

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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