While bullying has always been particularly problematic among teenagers, cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—can be even more harmful. What many may not realize is that it can also be a crime. Colorado law makes it a crime to harass, stalk, or threaten anyone via electronic communication.
This article discusses some of Colorado's criminal laws, including harassment and stalking, that may apply to cyberbullying and cyberstalking. For information about cyberbullying in general, see Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment.
Cyberbullying in Colorado may be punished under state criminal law as harassment or stalking. In addition to these criminal offenses, Colorado has an extensive policy on internet safety curriculum for schools that includes bullying and cyberbullying.
Colorado laws make it a crime to use any form of electronic communication in order to:
An offender who—directly, indirectly, or anonymously—harasses someone online or by text, email, social network posts, or otherwise commits a class 2 misdemeanor crime in Colorado. A guilty defendant faces up to 364 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
A person commits stalking by, directly or indirectly, making repeated communications with another person or their family or intimate partner that causes them to:
The repeated communications can be in any form, including electronic communications, but must be of such a degree as to cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress.
Colorado makes stalking a felony and an extraordinary risk crime. (For extraordinary risk crimes, the maximum sentence doubles and is reflected below.)
First offense. Prosecutors charge first-time stalkers with a class 5 felony, which subjects the offender to one to four years in prison and a fine of $1,000 to $100,000.
Subsequent offenses. Subsequent offenses occurring within seven years of a previous offense constitute class 4 felonies, as does an offense that occurs when the defendant is already subject to a protection order, injunction, or bond condition. A class 4 felony carries penalties of two to eight years in prison and a fine of $2,000 to $500,000.
Free speech is a fundamental yet limited right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The government can punish speech (words and related actions) when it is likely to be immediately dangerous to others. Examples are falsely yelling "fire!" in a crowded theatre and making terrorist threats. The line between protected and illegal speech isn't always clear, meaning that it may be appropriate under certain circumstances to explore a free-speech defense.
Not all crimes require the victim's fear to have been reasonable, but some do. For example, as mentioned above, stalking requires that the offender's behavior cause the victim to feel fear or serious emotional distress that is reasonable under the circumstances. So, if the victim was hypersensitive to behavior that wouldn't have seriously bothered a reasonable person, the behavior is unlikely to qualify as stalking.
Both adults and minors can commit acts of cyberbullying or stalking, but the procedures for prosecuting such act varies based on the offender's age.
Teenagers who are 18 or 19 are tried in adult court and receive an adult conviction, which can mean incarceration time. Juveniles who are 10 to 17 years old generally fall under the jurisdiction of Colorado's juvenile court and face delinquency charges. 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, supervised probation, community service, treatment, fines, or other alternatives. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency (not a conviction).
(Colo. Stat. §§ 18-1.3-401, -505; 18-3-602; 18-9-111; 22-32-109.1 (2021).)
Cyberbullying can incur serious negative legal consequences. If you have been arrested for or charged with harassment, stalking, or a related offense, contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A qualified lawyer can give you legal advice and help you chart your best court of action.
If you've been a victim of cyberbullying, you may be able to recover money damages through a civil lawsuit. A lawyer who practices civil law can advise you about the potential civil causes of action applicable to your case.