Understanding Cyberstalking

We’ve all turned to the internet when we’ve wanted to learn about a person we’re interested in. For most of us, this involves a quick Google search or reading through their social media posts. That’s fine. It’s not illegal.

However, when the interest goes deeper, it can turn into cyberstalking, which is illegal in California.

According to the Cyberbullying Association, cyberstalking, “involves the use of technology (most often, the Internet!) to make someone else afraid or concerned about their safety [1]. Generally speaking, this conduct is threatening or otherwise fear-inducing, involves an invasion of a person’s relative right to privacy, and manifests in repeated actions over time [2]. Most of the time, those who cyberstalk use social media, Internet databases, search engines, and other online resources to intimidate, follow, and cause anxiety or terror to others [3-5].”
 
California lawmakers opted to add cyberstalking to their stalking laws. Information about the state’s cyberstalking and stalking laws can be found in the California Penal Code section 646.9. When you read through the code, you’ll learn that the state considers stalker to be, “Any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or … 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.” 

The part of the law that pertains specifically to cyberstalking states that incidents, “performed through the use of an electronic communication device, or a threat implied by a pattern of conduct or a combination of verbal, written, or electronically communicated statements and conduct, made with the intent to place the person that is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family, and made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat so as to cause the person who is the target of the threat to reasonably fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family.”

While the media sensationalizes situations that involve victims being stalked by superfans that they’ve never met, The Cyberbullying Association reports that cyberstalking rarely involves people who aren’t acquainted with one another. According to them, most cyberstalking incidents involve people who do know each other. The bulk of the cyberstalking cases usually involve things like former lovers, students, employees, etc. 

There are several reasons people who are normally rational and law-abiding become cyberstalkers. The Tripwire reports that common cyberstalking motives include:

• Anger
• Control issues
• Lust
• Revenge
• Envy

 
There have even been instances of individuals and groups using cyberstalking tactics to influence politics and business decisions.

The alarming thing about cyberstalking is that some victims don’t even realize it’s happening. Publicized cases of cyberstalking usually involve unwanted messages, threats, and other bullying tactics, but there have been cases of cyberstalkers who remained silent, using their cyber skills to collect personal information about their victims with the intention of eventually using the information against the person they’re stalking.

In California, cyberstalking is a wobbler crime. One of the interesting things about cyberstalking is that a past history of domestic violence, including having past domestic violence restraining orders filed against you can impact the charges/penalties.

In cyberstalking cases where no prior convictions are present:

• A misdemeanor conviction has a maximum sentence of 1 year in county jail and a $1,000 fine
• A felony conviction has a sentence of 16 months-3 years in state prison 

 
With prior convictions, cyberstalking convictions result in:

• 1 year in county jail and a $1,000 fine for a misdemeanor conviction
• 2-5 years in state prison for felony convictions