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Is Harassment Stalking?

All fifty states have some form of stalking and harassment law. NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance), states “these laws define the ‘pattern’ or ‘course of conduct’  involving unwanted, disturbing and threatening behavior toward a person.”  Therein lies the rub. No matter how odious, how much interference it causes in your life, or even psychological trauma, the standard for criminal conduct is actually quite high.

According to criminal law, “The primary difference is the individual legality within each of the behaviors contributory to the charge itself.”  Although harassment is a crime, not all forms of stalking rise to the level of criminal activity and/or meet the standard for a crime committed, no matter how unpleasant or disruptive the activity may be.

An example of the above is photographing an individual without their consent. These laws vary from state to state, but in general, if you are “out and about” in a public place, i.e. walking on the sidewalk, at a city park, or shopping mall, you have no expectation of privacy, and someone so inclined could repeatedly take your picture without breaking any privacy laws. Unless, of course, you have a restraining order specifically addressing that activity.

On the other hand, if you are inside a private dwelling or building where you have a reasonable standard or expectation of privacy, such as your home or doctor’s office, an individual caught taking pictures through a small opening in the window coverings or even a fully exposed window would absolutely be charged with violating privacy laws. If other criteria were met, said individual could also be potentially charged as a “Peeping Tom”.

You might wonder about a retail establishment whose purpose is to attract public business but maintain its’ customers’ privacy and comfort. This can be a bit of a “gray” area, but if you own a store or restaurant or are a customer in one, privacy laws do not generally protect you or your establishment from someone taking pictures through your establishment’s windows. Fortunately, most people have the good sense not to take pictures two feet away from your customer enjoying your lunch special or trying on that dress you suggested!

It is the more egregious, violent stalker, or the who threatens violence who is typically arrested. This type of stalker usually “escalates” and presents a true danger to his victim. These are the cases we most often hear about in the media. This is also the type of stalker most likely to violate a restraining order.

Relief is typically found more readily in the civil courts where the standards for proof and evidence are lower. However, this is not much of a comfort to those victims whose perpetrators barely scrape by paycheck to paycheck. Something truly confounding is how these same individuals (the stalkers) always manage to amass a large quantity of electronics and gadgets despite their low incomes!

Harassment laws are typically associated with the workplace, usually with sexual harassment issues. This is the most common arena for harassment related out of court settlements and civil lawsuits.

Many of the same behaviors typified by stalkers are also observed by those who engage in harassment, sexual or otherwise. What about bullying?  I think it is a related behavior. It definitely has been demonstrated that there is a higher percentage of engaging in domestic abuse and a history of bullying behavior in those who sexually harass in the workplace. Many stalking behaviors are done at a distance, figuratively and literally. I think it is an interesting question:  When does harassment become stalking, or are they two sides of the same bad coin?