Young people have always encountered bullying, but cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become more prevalent than ever before thanks to the widespread use of text messaging and social media sites as an integral part of social interaction among teens. But what some don't realize is that in many states, including Maryland, cyberbullying can result in criminal penalties.
A person who engages in cyberbullying or cyberstalking in Maryland can face criminal charges for stalking or misuse of electronic communications—electronic harassment, for short. 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 misuse of electronic communications (electronic harassment) when they maliciously send messages using their cellphone, computer, or the Internet, which are directed at a specific person after a request to stop, have no legal purpose, and are intended to harass or alarm the person. A violation can be punished by up to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
The above law also prohibits harassing or bullying directed at minors younger than 18 through electronic communications or conduct. Electronic communications can include messages sent via cellphone, computer, social media applications, instant messaging, or the Internet. Electronic conduct refers to, for example, building a fake social media profile or disseminating a real or doctored image of a minor.
The law makes it unlawful to:
A person who electronically harasses or bullies a minor is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If the defendant violates this law with the intent to induce a minor to commit suicide, they face up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Stalking occurs when a defendant pursues another and engages in a malicious course of conduct that the defendant knows (or should know) will place another person in reasonable fear, for themselves or another, of serious bodily injury, assault, a sexual offense, false imprisonment, or death. Additionally, a defendant can be guilty of stalking if, by pursuing another and through their malicious course of conduct, they intended to cause or knew it would cause the victim serious emotional distress.
Although stalking is a misdemeanor, a guilty defendant faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The crime of stalking can occur in person or online but does require proof of the additional element of pursuing or following the targeted person.
Those who face criminal charges stemming from misuse of electronic communications or stalking-related offenses may consider the following defenses, among others.
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 issuing what are sometimes referred to as 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.
Stalking requires that the defendant's actions be ones that would put a reasonable person in fear or feel threatened. This means that if the victim was hyper-sensitive to actions that would not alarm an average reasonable person in the victim's position, the defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges. Similarly, if a reasonable person would be alarmed by the bully's behavior, but the victim was actually unperturbed, the bully will probably not be convicted of bullying.
Both minors and adults can be charged with cyberbullying or stalking, but they will be prosecuted in different courts based on age. Teenagers age 18 and 19 will face charges in criminal court, whereas most juveniles age 17 and younger fall under the jurisdiction of the state's juvenile justice system. Maryland does allow a minor who is 15 or older to be transferred to adult court under certain circumstances, where they will face adult penalties, such as prison time.
Juvenile court judges generally have more discretion than adult court judges in sentencing. Within the juvenile system, sentencing options may include counseling, community service or work program, educational program, or detention in a juvenile facility. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency rather than a criminal conviction.
Maryland requires all nonpublic schools to adopt anti-bullying policies that include cyberbullying. Each policy must include a procedure for reporting and investigating instances of bullying, consequences of such incidents, procedures for protecting victims, and information for support services available to bullies, victims, and bystanders.
Furthermore, the Maryland State Board of Education issued a school safety policy for all public schools that requires all students to have educational environments that are safe, supportive of academic achievement, and free from any form of harassment.
In addition to criminal or juvenile delinquency charges, bullies may also face a judgment imposed by a civil court jury or judge. Victims of harassment or stalking can bring a case in civil court to recover money from the offender to pay for the harm caused by their actions. For example, a judge or jury may award a victim money to pay for therapy costs incurred as a result of the offender's unlawful conduct. Similarly, the respondent may have to pay for damage to property that resulted from their actions.
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can incur serious fines and substantial incarceration time for a guilty defendant. If you've been arrested for or charged with a related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney right away. A qualified lawyer can give you sound legal advice and recommend the best course of action for the unique circumstances of your case.
If you've been a victim of these types of offenses, you may be able to recover money damages. A lawyer can advise you about the potential civil causes of action that might apply to your case.
(Md. Code, Crim. Law §§ 3-801 to -803, 3-805; Md. Code, Educ. § 7-424.3; Md. Code of Regs. § 13A.01.04.03; Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. Proc. §§ 3-8a-03, -06 (2021).)