How to File Criminal Charges for Harassment

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Harassment should be reported to the police along with a request that criminal charges be instituted. If the harassment is extreme and the victim believes there is a danger of imminent harm, the victim should call 911 immediately. Reports can be made in person at the police station or by calling the non-emergency number of the local police department to report the harassment.

What Constitutes Harassment

Harassment can take place in a number of different contexts, including in-person, over the telephone, and through online channels, such as social media or email (also sometimes referred to as cyberbullying). Every state defines harassment differently. Therefore, the first task is to determine if the specific behavior that the victim is being subjected to constitutes harassment in that person's state.

While many criminal charges only require proof that the defendant committed a specific act for the prosecution to prevail at trial, harassment is a bit different as it requires specific intent. In other words, the state must prove that the defendant committed an act (or made a statement or series of statements) intending that these acts or statements would harass the victim and cause distress.

Harassment may involve acts or non-verbal communications as well as explicit statements of an intent to harm. It is possible for a defendant to harass a victim without ever saying a word, as in cases in which the defendant shows up repeatedly at the victim’s workplace or home. Often, actions that would be considered stalking behavior qualify as harassment.

Harassment of Protected Classes

In jurisdictions that have enacted hate crime legislation, specific statutes may also exist that make harassment of protected classes eligible for heightened penalties. Typically, these laws prohibit harassment that is aimed at victims because of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

Gather Information About the Harassment

If the behavior or communications in question meet the applicable definition of harassment, it should be reported as a complaint to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Typically, this will be the local police department or sheriff’s office.

To assist law enforcement in investigating and preparing a case against the defendant, the victim should collect and document as much information about the harassment and the individual committing these acts as possible. A typed or written list of all relevant individuals, including their names, telephone numbers and addresses will help law enforcement locate and interview all relevant witnesses.

Additionally, it’s helpful to create and maintain a contemporary log or journal of all the harassing behavior. Such a log should contain the exact date, time and location where the harassment occurred, as well as a description of what happened and whether anyone else witnessed the harassment. For safety's sake, victims should inform family members and friends about the harassment.

Meeting With the Police

If the person has threatened the victim in any way, and that threat puts the victim in immediate danger, the first course of action should be to call 911. Otherwise, once the victim has collected the necessary background information and made a copy of it for their records, the victim should visit the appropriate local law enforcement agency in person and ask to speak to a detective who can help file criminal charges for harassment.

If possible, the victim should deliver the gathered documents in person and go over them with the detective to explain the circumstances and answer any questions that may arise.

Turn Over Evidence

A victim should also turn over any other evidence of the harassment to the police. For example, if the person has been leaving harassing phone calls on voicemail, the victim can bring the telephone or a recording of the messages to the police.

Victims who have been harassed through the U.S. mail should bring the mailed documents to their meeting with law enforcement. If the victim received harassing messages online, the police will find printed hard copies of those communications useful. Thus, it's also prudent for victims to bring their smartphones or laptops to show the relevant websites or social media accounts to the police upon request. However, copies of all documents delivered to law enforcement should be made first, in case the police want to keep the originals.

Once they receive allegations of harassment, the police will investigate the charges thoroughly. If law enforcement officials arrest the person sending the harassing communications, the law requires them to disclose the victim's name to the arrestee. If a victim believes that will create an added risk of harm, it's important that the police be given this information. Law enforement officials may also be able to offer additional advice about increasing personal safety and how victims may protect themselves and their property from the harasser while the case is being investigated.

Consider Taking Additional Legal Action

In addition to referring the matter to law enforcement for criminal charges, victims of harassment may also wish to consider seeking a restraining order if they are concerned that the harassment will continue. A restraining order is a document signed by a judge that legally bars the person from contacting or coming within a specified distance of the victim (usually 100 feet or so), or engaging in any further harassment. If the person violates the order, law enforcement officials may then take the person into custody for violating the court’s order.

An attorney can talk a victim through the legal process of obtaining a restraining order. Judges may issue these orders temporarily on an ex parte basis, that is, without notice to the harasser, especially when the victim has initiated criminal proceedings against the individual.

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About the Author

Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.