What is Considered Harassment?
In everyday life, what is considered harassment depends on who you ask. Most people don’t have a precise definition of harassment, but they know harassment when they see it.
If you are defending against—or bringing forward—allegations of harassment in court, it’s important to know the exact definition of harassment.
What is considered harassment in court depends on the state in which you are located. In other words, a universal definition of harassment is not applied in all the states. In fact, many states have different definitions of harassment, depending on the context. For instance, the definition of workplace harassment in a civil lawsuit is not necessarily the same as aggravated harassment in a criminal lawsuit.
The Basic Harassment Charge in New York
The most common form of harassment in New York is called Harassment in the Second Degree (P.L. § 240.26).
A person is guilty of harassment in the second degree when, with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person:
- He or she strikes, shoves, kicks or otherwise subjects such other person to physical contact, or attempts or threatens to do the same; or
- He or she follows a person in or about a public place or places; or
- He or she engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits acts which alarm or seriously annoy such other person and which serve no legitimate purpose.
As you can see, many different types of conduct can be considered harassment in New York. Harassment in the Second Degree occurs with physical contact, such as shoving or kicks (or threatening to do so), by following someone, or by committing repeated acts with no legitimate purpose that alarm another person.
Notably, what separates basic harassment from the more serious criminal offense of assault is the absence of injury. If you strike someone with the intent to cause physical injury, then you can at minimum be charged with attempted assault. If you successfully cause physical injury, then you can be charged with assault. Unlike assault, harassment charges do not involve physical injury.
For instance, if a person pushes someone to the ground, he could likely face harassment, but not assault, charges. If that person were to swing at the other person with a fist, then arguably he intended to cause injury, so he could likely face assault or attempted assault charges.
When Unwanted Communication is Considered Harassment
A commonly charged form of harassment in New York is when a person intends to threaten someone by sending threatening communications. Charged under the first two subdivisions of P.L. § 240.30, such harassment is a criminal offense that can result in up to a jail sentence up to a year.
Harassment under P.L. § 240.30(1) includes actual communications of threats, but it also includes harassing phone calls even if the recipient of the call does not pick up the phone.
The Most Serious Forms of Criminal Harassment in New York
Basic harassment can become more serious if it occurs in certain contexts. For instance, when a person commits the basic harassment violation of P.L. § 240.26 against a family member (therefore in the context of domestic violence), the person can be charged with the more serious criminal offense of Aggravated Harassment in the Second Degree P.L. § 240.30.
The most serious form of harassment in New York is Aggravated Harassment in the First Degree P.L. § 240.31. This offense is essentially basic harassment under P.L. § 240.26 that is motivated by a prejudice about a person’s race, gender, religion, age or sexual orientation. Aggravated Harassment in the First Degree is a felony that can be punishable by years in prison.
Defenses to Harassment
If you are facing harassment charges, you may have many solid defenses. An experienced harassment lawyer can assess your case to determine whether you were falsely arrested and have strong defenses.
Verbal Harassment Defenses
A common issue for verbal harassment charges is whether the alleged conduct is protected by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives us the right to freedom of speech.
To be sure, our freedom of speech is not absolute. Governments can place certain restrictions on our speech. However, under the law, those restrictions must be limited to communications that qualify as fighting words, true threats, incitement, obscenity, child pornography, fraud, defamation or statements integral to criminal conduct.
In the context of verbal harassment, a threat must be a “true threat” for 1st Amendment protections to not apply. True threats encompass statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.
For instance, let’s say a person has a playful relationship with someone, and he regularly says, “I’m going to kill you.” Although, on its face, stating “I’m going to kill you” sounds like a threat, when said by this person to the other, it’s not necessarily a true threat. That person could have a great defense to a verbal harassment charge.
Physical Harassment Defenses
A harassment charge stemming from physical contact requires the prosecution to prove that the actor intended to harass, annoy, or alarm the other person. In many physical harassment cases, the prosecution will have trouble proving intent.
For instance, let’s say a defendant is in a crowded area like a concert venue and lightly pushes someone else to quickly get out of the crowd. The other person feels violated and calls the police. Even though the contact was unwanted, the prosecution may have a hard time proving that the defendant intended to harass, annoy, or alarm the other person. After all, it was crowded, and the defendant was merely trying to leave a crowded space.
If you are facing Harassment charges in New York City, contact Cody Warner, P.C. for a free consultation. We can assess your case to determine the best defense strategy for you.