Criminal harassment in Massachusetts is governed by section 43A of General Law chapter 265 and involves engaging in a knowing pattern of conduct or series of acts directed at a specific individual that seriously alarms that person and would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. Harassing behavior can include behavior similar to that of stalking, including a pattern of targeting, altercations, or communications; however, a stalking charge includes the additional element of a threat. The statute covers speech—though not all First Amendment protected speech, only so-called fighting words, words that are inherently likely to provoke a violent reaction or incite an immediate breach of the peace.
Criminal Harassment Defined
Essential Legal Elements
The Commonwealth’s obligation is to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant:
- Willfully and maliciously engaged;
- In a pattern of conduct or speech, or series of acts;
- On at least three separate occasions;
- Which were targeted at a specific person; and
- That would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress
It’s not too late
Willful simply means that the conduct was intentional rather than negligent but does not require that the actor intended any specific consequences. That the conduct must be malicious does not mean that the actor has evil intent (for example, acting out of cruelty, hostility, or revenge), merely that the conduct be intentional and without justification or mitigation. Substantial emotional distress has been defined as a considerable amount of real worth and importance. Additionally, the actual harm that resulted must be foreseeable to a reasonably prudent person.
Harassment can occur via in-person confrontations, over-the-phone conversations, text messages, instant messages, e-mails, or online communications, among other mediums. Numerous abusive and excessive electronic communications are classic examples of conduct that qualifies as harassment.
Penalties for Criminal Harassment in MA
House of Corrections: Not more than 2.5 years (30 months); AND/OR
Fine: Not more than $1,000
Second or Subsequent Offense
This also applies to anyone who has a prior §43 Stalking conviction
State Prison: Not more than 10 years (60 months) or
House of Corrections: Not more than 2.5 years (30 months)
Criminal Harassment FAQs
What is the Difference Between Criminal Harassment and Stalking?
Short Answer: Stalking includes an additional element of a threat.
Criminal harassment and stalking are very similar charges. However, the former is a misdemeanor and the latter is a felony. Both stalking and criminal harassment require a pattern of conduct (at least three specific instances) that causes the victim to be seriously alarmed or annoyed. Stalking includes the additional element of a threat that places the victim in imminent fear of bodily injury or death. Because of this additional element of threatening behavior, stalking includes harsher statutory penalties for offenders.
Can Someone be Charged with Criminal Harassment for Online Communication?
Yes. The criminal harassment statute explicitly covers conduct or acts conducted by mail, telephone, radio, e-mail, instant messages, internet communications, and fax communications, among other mediums including any wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system.
Can a Criminal Harassment Charge be Dropped if the Alleged Victim Withdraws Their Complaint?
As a general rule, the testimony of the alleged victim in any type of case is often crucial to the prosecution meeting its burden to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. However, the testimony of the alleged victim is not always needed, and the prosecution may choose to proceed without the alleged victim’s testimony—and even over the alleged victim’s objection—if the state has other sufficient extrinsic evidence.
This may be true in a stalking case. As discussed above, to prove a defendant guilty of stalking, the prosecution must show that the defendant engaged in a pattern of conduct that caused the alleged victim serious alarm and that would cause a reasonable person substantial emotional distress. This pattern of conduct may be shown by evidence of phone calls, text messages, or other writings. If the prosecution has extrinsic evidence that an alleged victim suffered serious alarm as a result of this conduct (for example, text messages from the alleged victim), the prosecution may not need the alleged victim’s testimony at trial to succeed on a stalking charge. However, the alleged victim’s failure to testify is often favorable for the defense.
- Witness Intimidation
- Assault and Battery on a Family or Household Member
Ready to Defend You
If you’re facing criminal harassment charges, don’t navigate the legal complexities alone. Your future is too important. Reach out to our experienced team at Nate Amendola Defense today. Our dedicated criminal defense attorneys are here to provide you with expert guidance, unwavering support, and a strategic defense tailored to your case. Take the first steps forward safeguarding your rights and securing the best possible outcome. Call us at 781-650-6676 to schedule a free confidential consultation now.