Cyberstalking and Harassment in Washington

Learn how Washington defines and punishes cyberstalking and harassment crimes.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated March 27, 2024

Young people have always encountered bullying, but cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become more prevalent than ever before. This phenomenon is more common due to the universal use of social media sites, such as Snapchat and TikTok, and messaging as integral parts of teen social interactions. What many don't realize is that cyberbullying can lead to criminal charges.

Is Cyberbullying a Crime in Washington?

Yes. A person who bullies, harasses, or stalks another using electronic communications or tracking can face charges for cyberstalking or harassment in Washington. Additional penalties may apply if the defendant targets a victim as a hate crime.

Electronic communications include email, texting, instant messaging, and social media posts, among others.

Electronic tracking refers to devices that allow remote tracking or monitoring of another person's location or movement, including their person, vehicle, smart device, or other personal possession.

Cyber Harassment Laws in Washington

Cyber harassment charges carry gross misdemeanor and felony penalties depending on the circumstances of the offense.

What Is Cyber Harassment?

A person commits cyber harassment by harassing or intimidating another person through electronic communications that:

  • use lewd, indecent, or obscene words or images
  • are sent anonymously or repeatedly
  • threaten to physically harm the victim or another person, or
  • threaten to damage the victim's or another's property.

Threats of harm or property damage must be a type that would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or fear over the threatened acts.

What Are the Penalties for Cyber Harassment?

Washington law classifies cyber harassment as a gross misdemeanor, which subjects a guilty defendant to up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, prosecutors can charge cyber harassment as a class C felony when the behavior:

  • violates a protective order that names the victim
  • involves a threat to kill the victim or someone else
  • harasses a criminal justice participant (such as a judge, police officer, or prosecutor) or election official because of their duties, or
  • is a second conviction for any harassment crime against the same victim, the victim's family, or a person named in a protective order.

Penalties for a class C felony include up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.20.021, 9A.90.120 (2024).)

Cyberstalking Laws in Washington

Washington covers cyberstalking under its general stalking law.

What Is Cyberstalking or Stalking?

Washington prosecutors can file stalking charges when a defendant:

  • intentionally and repeatedly (two or more times) harasses or follows another
  • intentionally contacts, tracks, or monitors another after being given notice that the person objects to this conduct, or
  • knowingly and without consent installs or monitors another through an electronic tracking device.

To secure a conviction, the prosecutor must show that the person being stalked suffered substantial emotional distress or feared for their or another's safety (or that the person would have suffered such distress or fear if they became aware of being stalked).

What Are the Penalties for Cyberstalking or Stalking?

Cyberstalking carries gross misdemeanor penalties but increases to a felony under specified circumstances. It's a class B felony when the stalker:

  • violates a protective order that names the victim
  • has a prior conviction for any harassment or stalking crime
  • targets a police officer, judge, juror, attorney, or other public employee working in the areas of child welfare, protective services, social services, courts, or corrections
  • is retaliating against a witness for their testimony or potential testimony, or
  • is retaliating against a victim based on their actions taken in an official capacity or to influence their actions.

A person convicted of a gross misdemeanor faces up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. Penalties for a class B felony stalking conviction include up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9.92.020, 9A.20.021, 9A.46.110 (2024).)

Hate Crime Penalties for Cyberbullying in Washington

Cyberstalking and harassment crimes involving threats, assaults, or property damage can result in additional felony charges if committed as a hate crime. A person commits a hate crime by targeting a victim based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or disability.

An offender who commits a hate crime offense faces a class C felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. This conviction is separate from the cyber harassment or stalking conviction.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.20.021, 9A.46.110 (2024).)

Defenses to Cyberbullying Charges in Washington

Depending on the circumstances, those who face criminal charges stemming from cyber harassment or cyberstalking may be able to claim the following defenses or similar ones.

Free speech. A defendant might argue their comments, posts, words, or actions are protected speech, not criminal harassment or stalking. Free speech is a fundamental yet limited right protected by the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the line between protected and illegal speech isn't always clear. So, under certain circumstances, exploring a free-speech defense could be appropriate.

Unreasonable victim. Certain charges for cyber harassment and stalking require proof that the defendant's conduct would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or fear. If the victim was hypersensitive, the defendant might argue the victim overreacted.

Will Teenagers Face Cyberbullying Charges in Washington's Juvenile or Adult Court?

Both minors and adults can be charged with cyber harassment or stalking, but they will be prosecuted in different courts based on their age at the time of the offense. Teenagers age 18 and 19 will face charges in adult criminal court, whereas most juveniles ages 17 and younger fall under the jurisdiction of the state's juvenile justice system.

Juvenile court judges generally have more discretion than adult court judges in sentencing, as the juvenile justice system focuses more on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Within the juvenile system, sentencing options may include counseling, community service or work programs, educational programs, or detention in a juvenile facility. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency rather than a criminal conviction.

(Wash. Rev. Code. §§ 13.40.070, 13.40.110, 13.40.160 (2024).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been arrested for or charged with cyber harassment or stalking, contact a local criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can give you sound legal advice and recommend the best course of action for the unique circumstances of your case.

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