Stalking & Harassment in Arizona
Stalking and harassment in Arizona constitute serious crimes, and are prosecuted aggressively. Generally, harassment or stalking is committed by a friend or family member of the victim, severely complicating the proceedings. This article will discuss what constitutes both harassment and stalking, possible punishments, and defense options.
What is Harassment in Arizona?
Under Arizona law, pursuant to ARS 13-2921, harassment can include any of the following:
- continually following someone after being asked to stop
- putting someone under surveillance for no legitimate purpose
- harassing someone by mail, phone, in person, email, or any other means
- Making a false report to police or social services to harass another
- interfering with the public utilities of another
- any other harassing behavior
Although these behaviors outline a criteria for prohibited actions, it does not truly embody what harassment is. Harassment in Arizona is not the action itself, but the feelings that action invokes in the victim. The true definition of harassment is conspicuously absent in many of the criteria, particularly regarding harassment by mail, phone, or email. For instance, say a prospective employee continuously emails a prospective boss for a job. Is this harassment, or simple persistence? Thus, a second criteria, which both supplements and clarifies the first, is as follows:
- the action was directed at a specific person
- serves no legitimate purpose
- reasonably causes the victim to be seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed
Based on these two lists, the definition of harassment becomes clearer. Harassment in Arizona must be intentional, it must be against someone in particular, and that person must reasonably feel annoyance or alarm. It must be clarified that this does not mean a conviction can rely solely by the court’s reasonableness standard. In other words, a court cannot simply judge the actions as “capable of causing annoyance or alarm,” but that they must actually have caused said alarm. For instance, say a man follows a woman around a mall, muttering profanity in her ear. Yet, she seems okay with it, and laughs as it is happening. Technically, what he was doing could constitute harassment, but the woman did not act in an annoyed or alarmed manner. According to A.R.S. 13-2921, it must be conduct that “is directed at a specific person and that would cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed, or harassed and that in fact seriously alarms, annoys or harasses the person.” The feelings themselves, and not just the actions, play a major role.
Faults may manifest on the other side of the coin as well. That is, someone may feel harassed even though the action may not fall into the reasonableness standard of harassment in Arizona. For instance, say a woman is standing at a bar and a drunk man comes up to buy her a drink. He comments on how beautiful she is, making her feel uncomfortable and feel those “harassment” feelings of alarm and annoyance. Is she justified in accusing the man of harassment? Most judges would say no. The reasonableness standard is not met by a single compliment-even a sexual one- especially in the context of a bar.
On this same token, reasonableness standards for harassment cannot be met if the harassment is conducted for legitimate purposes. Say you owe your friend money, and promise to pay them back on a specific date. That date passes, and the friend begins to continuously ask about the repayment. Although you may feel harassed by this constant barrage, their “harassment” is legitimate based upon the specified agreement, and thus, will generally not be considered harassment in Arizona.
However, the same does not hold true for collection agencies. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors are subject to several protocol regarding harassment. They are required to:
- Identify themselves during every communication
- Notify the consumer that the communication is from a debt collector and that any information gained will be used in efforts to collect the debt
- Give name and address of original creditor
- Notify the consumer of their right to dispute the debt however they see fit
- provide verification of the debt
Debt collectors are prohibited from:
- calling at unreasonable hours (before 8 am and after 9 pm)
- failing to cease communication upon request
- repeatedly and continuously calling
- communicating with consumers after they have filed bankruptcy
- communicating with consumers at their place of employment
- communicating with consumers after request for validation
- misrepresenting or deceiving
- publishing the consumer’s name or address on a “bad debt list”
- seeking unjustified amounts
- threatening arrest or legal action that is not permitted
- using abusive or profane language
- communicating with third parties
- intentionally embarrassing the consumer
- reporting false information on a credit report
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act allows those in debt to live in relative peace from creditor harassment in Arizona. However, it does not act as a shield to debtors who consistently fail to pay what they owe. While creditors cannot harass debtors for payment, they can sue, as long as the lawsuit is filed in the district where the debtor lives or signed the contract. If a creditor harasses the debtor and then decides to sue, the debtor can minimize damage by referencing this harassment in court. Because the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is a no-liability law, the debtor need only prove that the creditor violated the law, and not that this violation actually caused damage. Often, debtors are awarded up to 1000 dollars plus attorney fees if they can prove the creditor violated the Act. And, if it can be proven that further costs were incurred based on this harassment, even more money could be issued.
These costs can result from a variety of things, such as switching telephone numbers or even a car accident that resulted from an angry creditor call. On the flip side, if the violations are extreme enough, or clear enough in a case such as bankruptcy, the debtor may sue the creditor. This should only be done in extreme cases however, and only after consulting an experienced attorney. Harassment is, in most cases, considered a Class 1 misdemeanor. A Class 1 misdemeanor carries with it a presumptive prison sentence of six months.
Aggravated Harassment and Stalking
Aggravated harassment is not experientially different from normal harassment; the “aggravation” is predicated on past actions. To be convicted of aggravated harassment, the defendant’s harassment offense has to be directed toward somebody who had already filed a restraining order against them. Someone may also be charged with aggravated harassment under normal harassment conditions if they have a history of domestic violence offenses. Aggravated harassment in Arizona is considered a Class 6 felony if the accused violates the restraining order clause and a Class 5 felony if they have a history of domestic violence offenses. The presumptive sentence for a class 6 felony is one year in prison, and two years in prison for a Class 5 felony.
Stalking is a more serious form of harassment in Arizona. Where harassment annoys or alarms, stalking causes the victim genuine fear for their safety or the safety of their family. In layman’s terms, every case of stalking is harassment, but not every case of harassment is stalking. For instance, if someone continuously makes threatening calls which causes the receiver to feel fearful about their safety, this satisfies the conditions for both stalking and harassment. However, if the calls are silly and clearly meant to annoy, only the harassment conditions are met. Stalking requires a far higher level of fear. Like aggravated harassment with past offenses, a stalking offense is considered a Class 5 felony, with a presumptive sentence of two years.
In the internet age we live in, it must also be noted that “cyber-stalking” and “cyber-harassment” are not conditionally different than regular harassment and stalking, both in regard to actions and punishment. The internet allows and almost encourages anonymity, making people we interact with across the medium seem “less real.” People are more willing to do and say things behind a computer screen, even toward people they know. Indeed, the concept of cyber-bullying, where a bullied child cannot even escape their daily torment upon returning home, is rampant across American schools, leading to such drastic measures as suicide.
For this reason, it is a blessing that punishments are not reduced for electronic communication. In fact, one could argue that those who use their computer as a conduit for abuse are even more deplorable; at least in-person harassment requires the harasser come face-to-face with the victim and own up to their actions. Our legal system should force punishments to increase when the possibility of being caught decreases, and the same should apply to cyber-harassment and stalking. Although you can still receive a felony charge for cyber-harassment or stalking, the risk versus punishment dynamic is still far more favorable when that same harassment is conducted online.
However, there are some considerations that increase the risk of harassing in the cyber world. For one, if the harasser is caught, the context by which they harassed is more heavily scrutinized. For instance, if you commit the harassment on your work computer, you can be fired. If you commit the harassment on your school’s network, you can be expelled. Harassing someone over a social media website like Facebook can lead to a banning of your account. Secondly, all interaction between the people in question will be on record. This eliminates the weaker hearsay evidence common in harassment cases, and allows a prosecutor far greater freedom in securing their conviction.
Injunction Against Harassment in Arizona
An injunction against harassment, otherwise known as a restraining order, is a civil order filed in most cases of harassment in Arizona, regardless of whether the case is brought to court. The criteria required for filing an injunction against harassment is identical to that of harassment itself, pursuant to A.R.S 29-21. An injunction against harassment lasts one year, and prohibits the harasser from the following:
- harassing you
- contacting you or other people listed in your petition
- stay away from the home, place of employment, or school of you or anybody named on the petition
- any other relief the judge deems necessary
Because the injunction is a civil order, issuance does not require a criminal trial. Instead, the victim must prove the following:
- The court finds reasonable evidence of harassment during the year leading up to the filing of the petition (note: any time that the defendant has been incarcerated or out of this state shall not be counted) OR
- Good cause exists to believe that great or permanent harm would result if the injunction is not granted at that time (before the defendant or the defendant’s attorney can be heard in opposition).
- Also, you must show the court that either you tried to give notice to the defendant about the injunction OR you must have specific reasons as to why notice should not be given.
An injunction against harassment is scary, even without a corresponding harassment charge. The injunction will appear on all criminal records and background checks even though it is a civil order. Moreover, someone can file an ex-parte injunction which allows them to file it without even notifying the harasser in question. However, even if the conditions are met, the defendant has the right to a hearing where they can oppose the injunction. At this hearing, defense options are numerous depending on the case. The defendant can invoke intervening circumstances to explain their purported harassment, alluding to anything from emotional distress to a lack of intention. Sometimes, even if the harassment is proven to have occurred, other considerations must be taken into effect. For instance, say the victim and the defendant work in the same building. Unless the harassment is substantial enough to fire the defendant, an injunction against harassment in Arizona – specifically the rule outlining workplace – would be impossible to support in this scenario.
Regardless of whether you are charged with harassment, stalking, or a simple injunction, contact an experienced defense attorney. Because harassment is subjective by nature, procuring as much evidence as possible with the best attorney possible is a necessity, especially with a felony charge looming on the horizon.