Harassment and Stalking Laws in Florida

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Stalking is illegal in every state, but definitions differ among jurisdictions. Under Florida law, stalking can take many different forms and isn't limited to simply following someone down the street or lurking outside their home. While one instance of harassment will not constitute stalking, repeated harassment might. It is a course-of-conduct offense. Anyone residing in Florida should get an overview of the stalking laws in order to understand the protection they offer.

Harassment in Florida

In Florida, both harassment and stalking involve behavior that distresses another person, and both are loosely defined. Florida defines harassment as behavior that causes substantial emotional distress to a person and serves no legitimate purpose. This can be anything from a nasty interchange over a parking issue to communications threatening harm or death. Obviously, not every instance where one person causes another emotional distress is a crime, but the most serious forms are illegal in Florida.

The law commonly known as the Florida Harassment Law makes it a felony for someone to make written threats to kill or do bodily injury to an individual or their family members. But harassment sufficient to constitute stalking need not rise to this level. It can be making phone calls, writing letters or sending text messages, emails and other types of digital communication that cause distress to the person getting the communication.

Stalking Charges in Florida

The law related to the crime of stalking is found in Florida Statutes Title XLVI Chapter 784 Section 048. The statute provides that anyone who willfully, maliciously and repeatedly follows, harasses or cyberstalks another commits the offense of stalking. Stalking is a misdemeanor of the first degree that can be punished by imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to $1,000.

Felony Stalking in Florida

Stalking can also be a felony in Florida if it is sufficient to involve a "credible threat" to the victim. This is the crime of aggravated stalking. It is left to the court to determine whether a pattern of behavior constitutes a credible threat.

What behaviors constitute aggravated stalking? They can involve verbal or nonverbal threats, or a combination of the two. Threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct can also be considered credible threats if they place the victim in reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of family members when the stalker appears to have the ability to carry out the threat. But Florida law does not require proof that the person making the threat actually intended to carry it out to constitute aggravated stalking.

In Florida, the crime of aggravated stalking is a felony of the third degree. It can be punished by imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of up to $5,000. Note that repeated instances of simple stalking can also be charged as a felony of the third degree with a similar potential prison term and fine.

Components of Stalking

Since the crime of stalking is described generally as a course of conduct of repeated and malicious following, harassment or cyberstalking, it is not immediately clear what type of conduct meets the legal definition. While "following" generally means tracking or monitoring a person's physical presence, "cyberstalking" involves the same type of conduct online, and "harassment" covers a wide swath of disturbing behaviors.

The behaviors targeted by Florida's laws are best described by example. The act of stalking in Florida can include:

  • Tracking or physically following someone.
  • Driving by a person's residence or work site, or showing up uninvited and unwelcome at one of these places.
  • Following a person’s online activities, including social networking activity on a computer or cell phone.
  • Following a person’s location or their vehicle's location using a secretly implanted GPS device.
  • Writing and sending unwanted letters, emails or other online communications, or offering unwanted gifts.
  • Phoning or texting a person when such communication is unwanted.
  • Videotaping or photographing someone without their permission and secretly.
  • Collecting information about a person without their permission even if the information is gathered from public records and internet searches.
  • Hiring a private investigator to turn up information on someone or contacting the person’s friends, family members and acquaintances.
  • Making threats against the person, their friends, their family members or their pets.
  • Damaging the person’s car, residence or other property.

Stalking Activities vs. Legal Behaviors

Reading through the examples, it is easy to see that some of these behaviors are, in and of themselves, legal. Many people call or text others who would rather not hear from them. Nor is it uncommon to look up an ex's Instagram or other social media account after a breakup.

That is why this crime requires more than one instance of these activities. Rather, it requires a pattern and practice (course of conduct) of these and similar behaviors. To constitute the crime of stalking, the acts of following, cyberstalking and harassment must be willful, repeated and malicious.

Calling a former significant other isn't stalking; calling them dozens of times day and night when they have specifically asked to be left alone is a different situation. Visiting someone unannounced is not stalking. But when a person repeatedly shows up on someone's doorstep when they have been asked to stay away, it becomes a tacit threat to the victim and constitutes stalking.

Harassment Restraining Order

When a person is charged and convicted of stalking, the court may, in addition to jail time and fines, impost a restraining order commanding the person to stay away from the victim and prohibiting any direct or indirect contacts. The restraining order can be for a period of up to 10 years, depending on the circumstances.

While charging someone with a criminal offense is a matter for the Florida prosecutor or district attorney, there are also civil remedies available to victims of stalking in Florida. Any person who is being subjected to stalking in Florida can file a petition with the circuit court for a civil restraining order. This can be done ex parte – without the presence of the stalker – and should include the details of the conduct, including dates, times and information on any witnesses.

If the judge believes the victim to be in immediate danger, they can issue a temporary restraining order for up to 15 days after the ex-parte hearing. They will also schedule a hearing for a permanent restraining order at which both parties can appear and present their cases.