While bullying has always been a special problem among youth, cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become a serious problem among teens, which can cause equally harmful effects. This phenomenon has become increasingly more common with text messaging and social media sites becoming an integral part of the social interaction among teens and middle schoolers. Though many don't realize it, cyberbullying in Arizona and throughout the country can lead to significant legal consequences, including criminal penalties.
A person who engages in cyberbullying or cyberstalking in Arizona can face criminal charges for acts associated with harassment, online stalking, and threatening or intimidating another. In some situations, these penalties carry the potential of prison time. Let's take a look at when bullying behavior crosses the line to criminal or delinquent behavior.
A person commits a crime by using electronic communications to terrify, intimidate, threaten, or harass another by:
Electronic communications include social media posts, telephone use, text messaging, instant messaging, or emails. A guilty defendant receives a class 1 misdemeanor conviction and faces up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Arizona law also makes it a criminal offense to harass another person. The law defines harassment as conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed, or harassed and that, in fact, does have that effect on the targeted person. Conduct rises to the level of criminal harassment when someone:
This offense includes harassment done via electronic means, such as by phone, social media sites, text, email, instant message, or other similar means. Harassment constitutes a class 1 misdemeanor, which carries penalties of up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The crime of harassment increases to the felony crime of aggravated harassment when a person engages in the conduct described above under misdemeanor harassment and:
Such an offense can result in a class 5 or 6 felony conviction. A class 5 felony subjects the offender to six to 36 months' incarceration and a $150,000 fine, and a class 6 felony carries penalties of four to 24 months of confinement and a $150,000 fine. Certain class 6 felonies are classified as wobblers, which means the prosecutor has the option to charge them out as class 1 misdemeanors rather than felonies.
A person commits stalking by intentionally or knowingly engaging in a course of conduct that is directed toward another person and that conduct causes the victim to:
A course of conduct includes, on more than one occasion, using any electronic, digital, or GPS device to surveil a person's Internet or online activity continuously for twelve hours or more or communicating through any electronic form without authorization or a legitimate purpose. Online stalking can result in a felony conviction as high as a class 3 felony. Such an offense carries two to eight years and nine months in prison and a $150,000 fine.
An offender is guilty of threatening or intimidating another by using language or conduct that conveys a threat to cause physical injury to another person or serious damage to their property.
Prosecutors can charge defendants with up to a class 6 felony for this offense. A class 6 felony subjects the guilty offender to four to 24 months' incarceration and a $150,000 fine.
Someone charged with a crime related to cyberbullying or cyberstalking might have a viable legal defense (or more than one). The availability of any particular defense will differ from case to case, but common ones include the following.
Freedom of speech. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the state from restricting freedom of speech, though not in every situation. For example, freedom of speech doesn't cover certain kinds of threats. On the other hand, a student who uses social media to express opinions about another student's racist conduct might be protected under the First Amendment.
Reasonable reaction? For statements or actions to constitute harassment or stalking, they must be "reasonably" upsetting or threatening. It's not enough for the alleged victim to feel emotional or mental stress or fear. The conduct in question must be such that it would produce this kind of reaction in an average, reasonable person.
Teenagers who are 18 or 19 are tried in adult court and receive an adult conviction, which can mean incarceration time. Minors age 17 and younger fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and face delinquency charges. (Certain felony offenses allow a prosecutor to charge juveniles who are 14 to 17 years of age at the time of the offense as adults.)
Juvenile court judges tend to have broader discretion than judges in adult criminal court when it comes to imposing punishments. A juvenile court judge may order detention, community service, restitution, treatment, monitoring, and curfews. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency (not a conviction).
Arizona law requires schools to enact and enforce policies and procedures that prohibit students from harassing, intimidating, and bullying other students on school property or buses and at school-sponsored activities or events through the use of electronic technology, communications, networks, forums, or mailing lists.
Such policies must include a procedure for students, parents, or school employees to confidentially report bullying, a requirement that the school provides a list of rights, protections, and support services to each victim of alleged bullying, disciplinary actions that may be imposed on students found to have engaged in bullying, and definitions of bullying, intimidation, and harassment.
For example, if a child uses social media, a cellphone, or another form of electronic communication to send threatening or intimidating messages to the victim, these acts constitute bullying or harassment. Students who bully others can face school disciplinary consequences.
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can involve significant consequences, such as substantial fines and incarceration time. If you have been charged with one of these or a related offense, contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A qualified lawyer can explain the relevant law and discuss possible defenses unique to your situation.
(A.R.S. §§ 13-501, 13-701, 13-702, 13-707, 13-801, 13-802, 13-1202, 13-2916, 13-2921, 13-2923 15-341 (2021).)