Monday, April 30, 2012
The Law on (Internet) Harassment
(Indiana) At 9:36 a.m. on Monday, according to the officer’s initial report, a woman filed a complaint against her ex-boyfriend—with whom she’d broken up on Saturday—after he “harassed her extensively via telephone over the past 24 hours” and sent her as well a total of 46 texts.
“She stated that some are just general conversation but in some he makes threats against both her and her estranged husband,” the officer stated and included these examples: “Watch your back the next few weeks”; and “I’m going to put your husband in the hospital.”
The officer duly contacted the ex-boyfriend and strongly advised him to “cease all contact” with both the woman and the woman’s husband. The ex-boyfriend admitted having sent some “stupid” texts and promised the officer that he would so cease.
Then, at 3:25 p.m. on Tuesday, the ex-boyfriend discovered what it’s like to be on the receiving end of threatening texts, the officer stated in her second report on the case. Beginning at 8:30 a.m. that day, the ex-boyfriend complained, he’d gotten a series of threatening texts apparently from the estranged husband. Examples: “Im still waiting 4 u 2 run ur mouth some more”; “Why dont you tell police that u like 2 chase married women”; “Better yet why dont u meet me”; “Whats wrong? U have nothing 2 say now?” and “I will find u!”
The ex-boyfriend advised that he hasn’t responded to the estranged husband’s texts and doesn’t intend to, that at the moment that estranged husband doesn’t know where he lives and he wants keep it that way, and that the estranged husband owns “multiple firearms” and “he is afraid that (the estranged husband) may harm him.”
Then, 4:04 p.m. on Tuesday—less than 30 minutes after the boyfriend had filed his complaint—the woman’s estranged husband also reported receiving from the ex-boyfriend a derogatory text about his wife at 12:05 a.m. on Monday, the officer stated in her third report on the case. This time the officer strongly advised the estranged husband to “cease all contact” with the ex-boyfriend.
The officer told all parties that her reports will be forwarded to the Porter County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for review.
Harassment is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a term of up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.
Indiana Code defines it as occurring when “A person who, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person but with no intent of legitimate communication,” makes a telephone call, sends a telegram, writes a letter, broadcasts over a CB radio, or uses a computer network to communicate with another person or to transmit “an obscene message or indecent or profane words.”
As Porter County Prosecuting Attorney Brian Gensel told the Chesterton Tribune, the key statutory element of the crime of harassment is “no intent of legitimate communication.” He gave this example. Say an estranged husband and wife are talking on the phone about the custody of their child. “There may be cussing and shouting, there may be trash talk, but at the end of the call they make some arrangement or reach some agreement about their child’s upraising. That’s not harassment. If there’s some legitimate communication beyond merely haranguing, then it’s not considered harassment. But if one parent is just calling up the other and screaming for the sake of screaming, then that may be harassment.”
Harassment can be a tricky crime to prosecute, Gensel noted. For one thing, “there’s the difficulty in interpreting a basis for what constitutes meaningful communication between the parties involved. Obscene calls are clearly harassment. But a text or call with a legitimate nugget of communication is not. It has to be wholly devoid of legitimate communication to be considered harassment under the law.”
For another, there really needs to be documentation of the harassment—a recorded call or a text—for a prosecution to be successful. “Otherwise, it’s just one person’s memory of what was said,” Gensel observed.
On occasion, a decision may be made not to prosecute because the harassment “was an isolated incident,” Gensel said. “Typically police officers took at whether the harassment is part of a continuing pattern and so do we.”
For the record, in November 2009 a Porter man was charged with harassment after Chesterton Police said that he e-mailed photos of himself to a Westchester Public Library employee and then left a note for her indicating that he was “waiting” for her.
Harassment as his deputies usually see it, Gensel said, tends to involve ex-friends, acquaintances, and family members in face-to-face or telephonic communication. Cyber-harassment is an altogether different issue. “One of the dilemmas about e-mails is who’s doing it, where are they doing it, and how will you find them?”
In any event, Gensel said, pinpointing the federal agency with jurisdiction in the matter can be problematic.
As it happens, Chesterton Police Chief George Nelson said, his officers spend a fair amount of their time responding to what are classified as either “Harassment” complaints or “Obscene/Harassing Phone Calls.” In 2009 alone, calls for service included a total of 122 of both.
More: according to the logs, the CPD officer who filed three separate reports on Monday and Tuesday devoted a total of 35 minutes of her time to the case or just under 12 minutes per report. If that average is in any way typical, the CPD devoted 24.4 hours or three full eight-hour shifts in 2010 to harassment complaints.