The word "harassment" gets a lot of use, but not always in the proper legal context. You might throw it out there when a coworker really gets on your case at work or your neighbor jut won't let something go. Harassment may come in many forms and from many sources: verbal or phyical, face-to-face or via text messages, emails and phone calls. The common thread is that it's repetitive and intentional.
Behavior Must Be Intentional
Legally, harassment involves intentional behavior. To bring charges for criminal harassment, you would have to prove that the harasser bothered you in an effort to cause you distress, or that he willfully committed an act knowing that it would distress you. For example, if you're alleging sexual harassment in the workplace, off-color jokes shared among coworkers at the water cooler may not constitute harassment unless you can prove that they intentionally engaged in the conversation within your earshot. The behavior cannot have any logical purpose other than to alarm, annoy or disturb you.
Behavior Must Be Repeated
An isolated incident is not harassment – the behavior must be repetitious. If your ex plants a spider in your mailbox knowing you're terrified of them, he hasn't harassed you. If he does so once or twice a week so you live in fear of thrusting your hand inside, this is harassment. The acts don't have to be identical each time, they can be a series of different events. For example, he might plant the spider on Monday, then call you three times on Tuesday for no good reason, just to threaten you with more spiders or call you names.
Stalking is a Type of Harassment
Stalking is related to harassment and involves some type of obsessive, unwanted attention towards you. Some states consider stalking and harassment to be so closely related, one offense could morph into the other. In Arizona, for example, stalking is considered harassment if you tell the individual to stop following you or spying on you, but he doesn't desist and he has no logical reason for repeatedly being in the same location as you. In other states, the offenses are completely different crimes. Motivation is the key differentiator – whereas harassment is done to annoy, stalking is usually done to intimidate, frighten or terrorize someone and make her fearful for her own safety.
Read More: How to Report Workplace Harassment, Slander & Bullying
Harassment Comes in Many Forms
Harassment does not have to involve face-to-face confrontations. A pattern of text messages, emails, and phone calls can qualify. If someone repeatedly calls you but never says a word, this still constitutes harassing behavior even though he hasn't spoken. Debt collectors engage in harassment if they call you relentlessly, particularly at unconventional hours. If your ex leaves a disturbing note in your mailbox , the note could be considered harassment.
Where Violence is a Possibility
If someone harms you physically, this can constitute harassment in addition to charges such as assault or battery. Threats count, even if he doesn't actually make physical contact with you. It's enough that the individual's behavior makes you feel that violence is a possibility. Sexual harassment can include overtures even if the other person doesn't actually touch you. If you're accosted for a discriminatory reason, such as because of your gender, race or religious beliefs, this can result in a more serious harassment charge against the perpetrator.
Degrees of Harassment
Harassment is a crime in most states, although states vary in how they define the term. Most times, you'll need to show there's been a credible threat to your safety. First-time offenders are typically charged with misdemeanor harassment, rising to felony charges for repeat offenders, domestic violence offenses and harassment based on someone's race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age or sexual orientation. If you're harassed in the workplace, you may be able to file a civil lawsuit against your employer, which requires a lower standard of proof than for a crime. Check with an attorney to find out if your case meets the necessary legal criteria. Otherwise, your municipal or county prosecutor would typically try the case in criminal court if you file charges.
The phrase "harassment" covers all sorts of offenses. In legal terms, the behavior must be repeated and not wanted, and performed solely for the purpose of causing alarm, annoyance or distress.
- Arizona State Legislature: Section 13-2921 – Harassment; Classification; Definition
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Sexual Harassment
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: What Constitutes Harassment by a Debt Collector?
- Eisenberg and Baum LLP: Common Examples of Workplace Harassment
- The Law Office of David R. Houston: The Difference Between Stalking and Harassment
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.