Like many things, stalking comes in all shapes and sizes and victimizes a broad range of individuals. Sometimes an act of stalking is easy to point out, but in many cases the behavior in question straddles a fine line between being lawful or constituting stalking. Understanding this distinction in behavior is critical in the law of stalking.
So, what is stalking?
In Florida, an individual commits misdemeanor stalking if they “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follow, harass, or cyberstalk” another person. In some instances, an individual may commit felony aggravated stalking if they make a “credible threat” to the person they are stalking. Whatever the degree of stalking may be, courts use a fact based inquiry to decide whether or not the legal threshold for stalking has been met.
When a claim of stalking is based on an individual being repeatedly followed the inquiry is usually simple. Prove that you have been repeatedly followed, with proper documentation, and a court will most likely find that you have been stalked.
However, things are different when stalking is based off of harassment.
Harassment is a course of conduct directed at a specific individual that:
1) Causes substantial emotional distress; and
2) Serves no legitimate purpose.
As a practical matter, course of conduct is a series of acts over a period of time that demonstrate a common purpose. Even though, a series of acts is required, courts have held that the time- span between the acts can be as little as hours. So, the classic Hollywood idea that stalking takes place over weeks, months, or even years is not entirely accurate and should never deter someone from seeking legal protection if they are a victim of stalking. Instead, stalking can occur over a matter of a few hours or a few days.
It all depends on the circumstances.
Once a pattern of behavior has been established the next inquiry by the court will be to determine whether the victim suffered substantial emotional distress as a direct result of the harassment. In doing so, a court will use the “reasonable person standard” to judge if a person, under similar circumstances, would suffer substantial emotional distress. If the substantial emotional distress is based off of conduct that enjoys special constitutional protection, like picketing, then a court will rule that there was no stalking.
As has been said, stalking comes in many ways, but one thing is consistent: the longer it goes on the more severe the behavior becomes. Many people mistakenly think that they are powerless to do anything about their stalker because even though they are fearful and upset over the harassment, they are unsure as to whether they are “legally” being stalked and reluctant to seek help.
Never take this risk.
First, if you strongly feel as though your life is in immediate danger then call the police.
Additionally, a qualified family law attorney can advise you on civil protection such as temporary and permanent injunctions and additional measures to protect yourself from a stalker.
To conclude, stalking is an extremely serious offense and should be taken very seriously regardless of the form that it takes place in. It occurs throughout a multitude of places, such as the home and the workplace, and affects a broad range of people. It is important to remember to evaluate the elements of stalking when considering whether conduct amounts to stalking and it is also advisable to seek professional help and consultation.