Rhode Island Stalking And Cyberstalking Charges
A simple Google search of “stalk” and “Instagram” results in a dizzying number of articles, and even paid services, that speak to the popular pastime of closely following the lives of others such as past loves, new crushes, old classmates, or other targets of fascination with relative anonymity. Now that so much of our existence is online displayed for the world to see, track, follow, like, and comment on, it is become increasingly easy for people to find and contact one another. However, at a certain point this type of activity can become criminal. Stalking and Cyberstalking charges are serious and can have significant repercussions for those who are convicted of committing these crimes.
Under Rhode Island law, Stalking is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five (5) years imprisonment and/or a fine of $10,000, if convicted. Under Rhode Island criminal law, stalking may be proven in two ways. First, an individual may be convicted of stalking by harassment of another person. Harassment is defined as a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person over a continuous period of time with the intent to seriously alarm, annoy, or bother and for which there is no legitimate purpose. Further, this course of conduct must be to the extent that it would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress or fear bodily harm or injury. Second, an individual may be convicted of stalking by willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly following another person with the intention of placing that person in reasonable fear of bodily harm or injury.
While individual interactions with a particular person may seem innocuous when examined separately, it is when these encounters are viewed in their totality and combined with the intent to instill fear or cause harm that they run afoul of Rhode Island criminal law. However, the ability for the prosecution to obtain a conviction for stalking will depend heavily on the facts of an individual case. This presents plenty of opportunity to challenge the complainant’s interpretation of what transpired and opens the door to many possible defenses, including, but not limited to:
- The conduct involved did not rise to the level of causing a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress or fear bodily harm;
- The complaining witness did not suffer substantial emotional distress or fear bodily harm;
- The contact was initiated or welcomed by the complaining witness; or
- The conduct was innocent and unintentional.
Finally, the Rhode Island Stalking law, found at Rhode Island General Laws, Section 11-59-1, stipulates that “constitutionally protected activity” does not qualify as a proscribed course of conduct. While such activities are not defined under this law, exercising one’s right to freedom of speech may serve as another defense to a stalking charge or allegation.
Cyberstalking or Cyberharassment
With the advent of the internet and social media, legislators have since enacted laws directed at stalking and harassment online as well. Cyberstalking, also referred to as cyberharassment, is considered a computer crime and may be found at Rhode Island General Laws, Section11-52-4.2. Cyberstalking is defined as transmitting any communication by computer or other electronic means to another person for the sole purpose of harassing them and/or their family. The definition of harassment is the same here as it is under the Stalking statute described above.
Cyberstalking is considered a misdemeanor under Rhode Island law and upon conviction, carries a maximum penalty of one (1) year on prison and/or a fine of $500, or both. Any subsequent cyberstalking is a felony punishable by up to two (2) years in person and/or a fine not exceeding $6,000. Cyberstalking or Cyberharassment may also be charged as a domestic violence crime if the defendant and the complaining witness share a qualifying domestic relationship (married, former or current dating relationship, related by blood, cohabitate, or share a child in common). If convicted of Domestic Cyberstalking, defendants face additional penalties to include (1) mandatory attendance of a batterer’s intervention program; (2) payment of additional assessments; (3) a domestic no-contact order with the complaining witness; and (4) loss of the right to possess a firearm or ammunition.