25 Jun 20

What Is Stalking? Laws, Charges and Statute of Limitations

| by

Last Updated on: 5th August 2023, 07:54 pm

Under federal law, stalking and harassment are serious crimes with tougher penalties than those that state courts impose. However, federal stalking charges are limited to cases where the stalking occurs over the telephone, internet or U.S. Postal Service. Since many serious stalking cases involve one or more of these methods of communication, the number of cases that can be pursued under federal law is greater than most people think.

Federal and State Anti-stalking Laws

Federal anti-stalking laws make stalking, harassment and cyberstalking a felony. The definition of what qualifies as stalking under federal law involves the following actions: [1]

  • Repeated Violations
    A single instance of any of the above violations is usually not enough to warrant federal charges. The law requires evidence of a “course of conduct” of at least two or more violations.
  • Cyberstalking
    Cyberstalking grows increasingly common in today’s connected society. Students in secondary schools and colleges and universities are often subject to cyberstalking, online bullying and attempts to tarnish online reputations. Under federal laws, anti-stalking charges require these conditions:

    • Communications that place a person in fear of death or bodily injury of the person or his or her friends and family
    • Attempts to foster emotional distress by posting information that damages a person’s reputation or other actions that cause distress
    • Acts with premeditation to kill, injure, intimidate or harass a person or acts that place a person under surveillance to provide an opportunity to do any of these things
  • Harassment
    Courts have defined harassment as using words, actions and/or conduct that have no legitimate purpose but to distress, alarm or annoy another person.
  • Substantial Emotional Distress
    The “substantial emotional distress” element of anti-stalking crimes is generally understood to include mental stress, shock, public humiliation, shame, anxiety and fear.
  • Intent
    The intent to cause harm is a central element of anti-stalking cases. In federal crimes, the intent is often obvious in mail or emails to the plaintiff.
  • Crossing State Borders
    Federal anti-stalking statutes also apply when someone crosses state lines to threaten or harass a person. This includes crossing tribal lands that are recognized as autonomous governing entities by the federal government.

State laws also include anti-stalking codes, but in these cases, no communication by phone, mail or the internet or traveling across state lines is involved. Stalking behavior conducted in person or by leaving messages or objects to induce fear can be prosecuted by state courts.

Charges Under Federal Statutes

Anti-stalking laws have become more serious in the digital environment of instant communications. State anti-stalking laws were non-existent before 1990 when California became the first state to enact a specific law against stalking. [2] Since then, every state and the District of Columbia now have anti-stalking laws.

However, fewer than a third of the states have anti-stalking laws that focus on cyberstalking. Fortunately, victims can prosecute these cases under various federal statutes. Under 18 U.S.C. 875(c), penalties for cyberstalking include fines of up to $250,000 fines and prison sentences of up to five years. The Interstate Stalking Act, which was signed into law in 1996 by Bill Clinton, made interstate stalking behavior a federal crime.

Statute of Limitations

Federal charges of stalking violations are generally limited to three years, but the case can be delayed if the plaintiff is unavoidably out of the state or country where the charge originates, which is a doctrine called tolling.
[3] Civil lawsuits are limited to two years, but these can be delayed if the plaintiff is a minor.

Tolling (law) Tolling is a legal doctrine that allows for the pausing or delaying of the running of the period of time set forth by a statute of limitations, such that a lawsuit may potentially be filed even after the statute of limitations has run. … The plaintiff was a minor at the time a cause of action accrued.
Stalking Statute of Limitations

Hiring an Attorney

If you have been charged under federal anti-stalking charges, getting the right attorney can be critical. The same holds true for victims who want to file a civil suit to recover damages.