While bullying has always been particularly problematic among teenagers, cyberbullying can be even more harmful. With the widespread use of social media and messaging, this problem may be the most dangerous form of bullying to date. What some might not realize is that it can also be a crime.
Yes, it can be. Cyberbullying offenses fall under Indiana's crimes of harassment, intimidation, and stalking. All of these offenses can occur by use of electronic communications. Intimidation and stalking carry the possibility of felony penalties.
A person who uses electronic communications or devices to harass, intimidate, or stalk someone can face the following charges and penalties in Indiana.
A person commits a class B misdemeanor by sending an electronic communication to another person with the intent of harassing, annoying, or alarming them (with no legitimate reason). This law also covers intentionally trying to harass someone by electronically transmitting obscene, indecent, or profane messages to them.
A class B misdemeanor carries a potential jail sentence of up to 180 days and a $1,000 fine.
(Ind. Code §§ 35-45-2-2, 35-50-3-3 (2023).)
Indiana also makes it a crime to communicate threats of bodily harm, unlawful restraint, property damage, other criminal acts, or exposure to hate, contempt, disgrace, or ridicule, intending to make the recipient fear the threats will be carried out.
Intimidation crimes start as class A misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Threats communicated using school computers or equipment are Level 6 felonies. A person convicted of a Level 6 felony faces a prison sentence of 6 months to 2 ½ years, plus a $10,000 fine.
(Ind. Code §§ 35-45-2-1, 35-50-2-7, 35-50-3-2 (2023).)
More severe or repeated acts of harassment can lead to felony stalking charges.
Stalking charges apply when a person intentionally and repeatedly harasses another in such a manner that it causes the person to reasonably feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, or threatened. Harassing activity can include:
A person convicted of stalking faces a Level 6 felony, punishable by up to 2 ½ years in prison. However, stalking increases to a Level 5 felony if any of the following are true:
Having a prior stalking conviction involving the same victim bumps up the offense to a Level 4 felony.
Being convicted of a Level 5 felony means a possible prison sentence of one to six years. For a Level 4 felony, the maximum prison sentence increases to 12 years.
(Ind. Code §§ 35-45-10-1, 5-45-10-2-, 5-45-10-3, 5-45-10-10, 35-50-2-5.5, 35-50-2-6 (2023).)
Common defenses to charges of harassment, intimidation, and stalking include claiming that free speech protections apply or establishing that a victim's reaction was unreasonable.
Free speech. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, but this protection is not absolute. Speech that poses an immediate threat to others is not protected. Nonviolent and non-threatening speech or conduct is generally protected even if it's unpopular or offensive to others. The line between protected speech and unprotected speech can be a fine one and may be worth exploring as a defense if there's ambiguity.
Unreasonable reaction. Indiana's harassment and stalking laws require proof that the victim's fearful reaction was reasonable. If a victim had a hypersensitive reaction to the conduct involved, a defendant may have a defense that the prosecution cannot meet its burden of proving all the elements of the crime. For instance, being upset over a rude and nasty comment does not rise to the level of reasonably fearing for one's safety.
Teens younger than 18 generally fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court in Indiana. Older teens will go to adult court.
For first-time offenders or minor offenses, a prosecutor might offer diversion to the juvenile. Diversion keeps a juvenile out of the formal court system, but the juvenile must abide by the diversion terms and stay out of trouble.
If a juvenile ends up in the formal court process, they can face an adjudication hearing. Juvenile court judges generally have more discretion than adult court judges when it comes to "sentencing" teens. A judge might order the teen to report to a probation officer, attend counseling, complete educational courses, or abide by curfews. The judge can also prohibit the teen from having contact with victims and may order the parents to attend counseling as well. Juvenile detention options are usually a last resort or for egregious offenses.
A teenager aged 18 or 19 will face charges in adult court. While sentencing alternatives are also available in adult court, so is jail or prison time.
(Ind. Code §§ 31-37-1-1, 31-37-8.5-1, 31-37-19-1, 31-37-19-5 (2023).)
If you face criminal or juvenile charges related to bullying, talk with an experienced criminal defense attorney. For a juvenile defendant, it's a good idea to find an attorney who defends juvenile cases.