Penal Code 646.9 PC – California Stalking Laws


When does “Stalking” become a crime?

More info at California stalking laws, Penal Code 646.9 PC, explained by a criminal defense lawyer. Stalking becomes a crime when you repeatedly follow or harass a person and make a credible threat to hurt the person or his / her family.

Under Penal Code 646.9 PC, California law defines the crime of stalking as following, harassing, and threatening another person to the point that the person fears for his or her safety. Stalking can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. A conviction carries a penalty of up to 5 years in jail or prison. 

PC 646.9(a) states that “any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or willfully and maliciously harasses another person and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family is guilty of the crime of stalking…”


  • Calling a co-worker every night, without an invitation to do so, and telling her that “we will eventually be together, like it or not.”
  • Sending an ex-friend dead flowers every Tuesday with a note that says “you're next.”
  • Sending neighbor a letter every other day that says, “take down the fence or else.”


Defense lawyers can assert a number of legal defenses in a stalking case. These include showing that:

  • the threat was not credible,
  • the alleged victim is making the story up,
  • there was no intent to cause fear, and/or
  • the defendant was participating in a constitutionally protected activity.


A violation of this section is a wobbler offense, meaning that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

If charged as a misdemeanor, the offense is punishable by:

If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by:

Additional Consequences

In addition to the above criminal penalties, a convicted stalker may be subject to a civil lawsuit brought by the alleged victim.

Note that if a person is convicted of stalking, this conviction may have:

Also note that a person convicted of this offense can seek to have it expunged once he successfully completes:

  • probation (if imposed), and
  • any jail time (if imposed).

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

girl looking at two guys stalking her anxiously, a possible violation of California stalking laws
Penal Code 646.9 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to stalk another party.

1. What is the legal definition of criminal stalking in California?

Penal Code 646.9 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to stalk another party.1

A prosecutor must prove two things in order to successfully convict a defendant of this offense. These are:

  1. the defendant willfully and maliciously harassed or willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly followed another person, and
  2. the defendant made a credible threat with the intent to place the other person in reasonable fear for his safety (or for the safety of his immediate family).2

Note that a person is not guilty of stalking if he is engaged in a constitutionally protected activity. For example, an accused is innocent of violating this statute if he was:

  • exercising free speech,
  • legally protesting, or
  • participating in an assembly.3

Please also note that questions often arise under this code section on the meaning of:

  1. willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly,
  2. harassment,
  3. credible threat,
  4. reasonable fear, and
  5. immediate family.

1.1. Willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly

For purposes of this code section, someone commits an act willfully when he does it willingly or on purpose.4

Someone acts maliciously when he intentionally does a wrongful act or when he acts with the unlawful intent to disturb, annoy, or injure someone else.5

Repeatedly means more than once.6

1.2. Harassment

Harassing means engaging in a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously:

  • annoys,
  • alarms,
  • torments, or
  • terrorizes.7

The course of conduct must also serve no legitimate purpose.8

Note that a “course of conduct” means two or more acts occurring over a period of time, however short, demonstrating a continuous purpose.9

1.3. Credible threat

Under this statute, a “credible threat” is one that:

  1. causes the target of the threat to reasonably fear for his or her safety (or for the safety of his or her immediate family), and
  2. one that the maker of the threat appears able to carry out.10

A credible threat may be made:

  • orally,
  • in writing, or
  • electronically.

It may also be implied by a pattern of conduct or a combination of statements and conduct.11

1.4. Reasonable fear

On the issue of whether a defendant intended to place “the victim” in reasonable fear, the court will decide the issue by analyzing the facts and circumstances of the case.12

But, note that the court has stated that whether a threat is made with the intent to cause fear is reserved for “true threats.”13

True threats do not include:

  • political statements that exaggerate,
  • joking expressions, or
  • constitutionally protected speech.14

1.5. Immediate family

According to this code section, “immediate family” means a:

  • spouse, parent, or child,
  • grandchild, grandparent, brother, or sister related by blood or marriage, and
  • person who regularly lives in the household.15
attorney working on a Penal Code 646.9 PC case
A defendant can beat a stalking charge with a successful legal defense

2. Are there legal defenses to 646.9 PC charges?

A defendant can often beat a stalking charge with a successful legal defense. A good defense can work to reduce or even dismiss a charge.

Three common defenses to PC 646.9 accusations are:

  1. no credible threat
  2. no intent to cause fear, and/or
  3. constitutionally protected activity

2.1. No credible threat

Recall that an accused is only guilty under this code section if he made a “credible threat” to an alleged victim. A defense, therefore, is for a defendant to show that, while he may have made a threat, it was not serious or credible. For example, perhaps an offender threatened a person in a jokingly manner.

2.2. No intent to cause fear

This is similar to the prior defense. Here, an offender would argue that while he may have made a threat, he did not mean for that threat to cause fear. For example, maybe he made a repeated threat to tickle another person.

2.3. Constitutionally protected activity

Recall that under this statute, a defendant is innocent of stalking if he was engaged in a constitutionally protected activity (such as lawfully protesting). This means it is always a good defense for a defendant to show that he was engaged in such an act when charged with stalking.

3. What are the penalties?

There are two basic penalties that a person will face if he commits the offense of stalking. These are that the offender will be subject to:

  1. criminal penalties, and
  2. civil penalties.

3.1. Criminal Penalties

A defendant that is convicted of stalking will be subject to a sentence.

A violation of PC 646.9 is a wobbler offense, meaning that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

If charged as a misdemeanor, the offense is punishable by:

  • misdemeanor (or summary) probation,
  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.16

If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by:

  • felony (or formal) probation,
  • up to five years in state prison, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.17

Note that the crime of stalking will always be charged as a felony if either of the following circumstances apply:

  1. the stalking was in violation of a court-issued protective order, or
  2. the defendant had been previously convicted of stalking (even if the alleged victim in the new case is not the same person he previously stalked).18

3.2. Civil Penalties

In addition to criminal penalties, the alleged stalking victim may sue the offender in civil court for damages related to the stalking.19

A stalking victim must prove three things in order to get damages for the stalking in a civil court proceeding. These are:

  1. the defendant stalker engaged in a pattern of conduct that was intended to follow, alarm, or harass the "victim" (s/he needs independent evidence, besides his/her testimony, to show this),
  2. as a result of this conduct, the victim reasonably feared for his/her safety or the safety of an immediate family member, and
  3. the defendant stalker either:
    1. made a credible threat against the safety of the victim or his/her family member, and failed to stop the harassing behavior after the victim asked him to do so, or
    2. violated a restraining order with his behavior.20

If the alleged victim is successful in proving these, then he may recover both:

4. Are there immigration consequences?

A stalking conviction may result in negative immigration consequences.

United States immigration law says that some California criminal convictions can lead to a non-citizen being deported. Some convictions can also make an immigrant "inadmissible.”

The major categories of “deportable” or “inadmissible” crimes are:

  • crimes of moral turpitude,
  • aggravated felonies,
  • controlled substances (drug) offenses,
  • firearms offenses, and
  • domestic violence crimes.21

Depending on the facts of a case, a felony stalking charge may rise to the level of an aggravated felony. If it does, then it may have detrimental immigration effects.

5. Can a conviction be expunged?

A person convicted of stalking can seek to get the offense expunged.

An “expungement,” per Penal Code 1203.4, releases an individual from virtually "all penalties and disabilities" arising out of the conviction.22

One particular benefit is that an expunged conviction does not need to be disclosed to potential employers.

As a basic rule, PC 1203.4 authorizes an expungement for a misdemeanor or felony offense provided the applicant:

  1. successfully completed probation, and
  2. is not currently charged with a criminal offense, on probation for one, or serving a sentence for a crime.23

This means that once a defendant has successfully completed probation (if it was imposed) or served out a jail term (if applicable), then he may begin trying to get the crime expunged.

6. Does a stalking conviction affect a person's gun rights?

A conviction for felony stalking will have an effect on the convicted party's gun rights.

The following people are generally prohibited from acquiring or possessing a gun in California:

  1. felons (that is, anyone convicted of any felony offense in any jurisdiction),
  2. narcotic addicts,
  3. persons with two or more convictions under Penal Code 417 PC, California's law against brandishing a weapon,
  4. persons convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses (such as convictions of Penal Code 273.5 PC, California's law against corporal injury on a spouse),
  5. persons who suffer from mental illness, and
  6. people under 18 (people under 21 may not purchase a gun).

Recall that stalking can get charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Given the first category above, if a defendant gets charged with felony stalking, and gets convicted of the same, then that conviction would mean he would have to give up any gun ownership and possession rights.

7. Are there crimes related to stalking?

There are three crimes in particular that often get charged along with stalking. These are:

  1. kidnapping – PC 207,
  2. annoying phone calls – PC 653m, and
  3. criminal threats – PC 422.

7.1. Kidnapping – PC 207

California Penal Code 207 PC prohibits the crime known as kidnapping.

"Kidnapping" is the:

  1. moving of a victim a substantial distance, and
  2. using force or fear to do so.24

Unlike stalking, the crime of kidnapping requires that a defendant physically handle an alleged victim and move that person.

7.2. Annoying phone calls – PC 653m

Per California Penal Code 653m PC, it is a crime for a person to:

  1. make a telephone call that is obscene, threatening or one of a series of repeated calls, and
  2. do so with the intent to harass or annoy the person being called.

Note that while stalking is similar to this offense, stalking carries the extra element that any threat must have been made with the intent to place the “victim” in reasonable fear.

7.3 Criminal threats – PC 422

Penal Code 422 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of "criminal threats."

A "criminal threat" is when a defendant threatens to kill or physically harm someone and

  • that person is thereby placed in a state of reasonably sustained fear for his safety or for the safety of his immediate family,
  • the threat is specific and unequivocal, and
  • the defendant communicated the threat verbally, in writing, or via an electronically transmitted device.25

Unlike stalking, this offense does not focus on a defendant harassing or following a person. Rather, PC 422 focuses more on the nature of the threat made.

8. What should a person do if he is being stalked?

If a person thinks, or knows, that he or she is being stalked, it is imperative for this person to act. At minimal, the alleged victim should:

  • take action before the stalking behavior escalates,
  • tell the stalker to stop with the unwanted contact,
  • if the contact continues, do not engage with the stalker in any way,
  • inform friends, family, and an employer about the stalking,
  • call the police and make a report, and
  • try to keep and preserve all evidence of the stalking.

Helpful resources available to stalking victim include:

Were you accused of stalking in California? Call us for help…

receptionists at criminal defense law firm
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime under Penal Code 646.9 PC, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.

For similar accusations in Nevada, please see our article on NRS 200.575 - Nevada ‘Stalking' Laws.

For similar accusations in Colorado, please see our article on 18-3-602 CRS - Colorado Stalking and Vonnie's Law.

Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 646.9 PC. 

  2. CALCRIM No. 1301 - Stalking, Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition). See also People v. Ewing (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 199.

  3. See same.

  4. See same.

  5. See same.

  6. See same. See also People v. Heilman (1994) 25 Cal.App.4th 391.

  7. CALCRIM No. 1301 – Stalking. See also People v. Norman (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 1234.

  8. CALCRIM No. 1301 – Stalking.

  9. See same. See also People v. Norman (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 1234.

  10. CALCRIM No. 1301 – Stalking.

  11. See same.

  12. People v. Falck (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 287. See also People v. Ewing, supra.

  13. See same.

  14. See same.

  15. CALCRIM No. 1301 – Stalking.

  16. California Penal Code 646.9 PC.

  17. See same.

  18. See same.

  19. California Civil Code 1708.7 CC - Stalking; tort action; damages and equitable remedies.

  20. See same.

  21. See INA 237 (a) (2) (A).

  22. California Penal Code 1203.4 PC.

  23. See same.

  24. California Penal Code 207 PC.

  25. California Penal Code 422 PC.

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