A Breakdown of California Stalking Laws
California is home to many of the country’s most notable and popular celebrities. With fame and fortune comes increased attention which, in many cases, is unwanted and potentially dangerous. Sandra Bullock, Sean Penn, and Jennifer Lopez are a few of the A-list California celebrities who, in recent months, have turned to the police for assistance in thwarting the efforts obsessive fans. California boasts the nation’s first, and most comprehensive, anti-stalking laws, which can be a tremendous aid to law enforcement tapped to protect Hollywood’s elite.
How Is Stalking Defined in California?
California first passed its landmark anti-stalking laws in 1990 as a knee-jerk reaction to the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer. In an attempt to keep its citizens safe from the fate suffered by Ms. Schaeffer, the California legislature pieced together a comprehensive piece of legislation that has provided protection and comfort to residents. Under the law, stalking is broken down into three main components. To be guilty of stalking of California Penal Code 646.9 PC, an individual must:
- Willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follow or harass another person;
- Make a credible threat to that person’s safety or the safety of their immediate family; and
- Place the person in reasonable fear for their safety.
By its very definition, stalking cannot be a one-time occurrence. Rather, the harassment or following must be done repeatedly. Stalking can take many forms and is not limited to physically following another person for a period of time. Common forms of stalking include:
- Repeatedly showing up at a person’s home or business;
- Repeatedly making harassing phone calls;
- Vandalizing another’s property;
- Repeatedly leaving written messages, notes, or objects for another person;
- Falsely reporting a target’s residence as a scene of a crime (commonly referred to as “swatting”).
Penalties for Stalking in California
Stalking is an interesting crime – the act itself can range from fairly innocent to downright dangerous. It seems as though the California legislature was well aware of the many forms stalking can take, and in its infinite wisdom chose to grant prosecutors with discretion in choosing how to pursue a stalking case.
Stalking is what is known as a “wobbler” in California, meaning that the crime can be tried as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Prosecutors are given latitude in determining how to try the case, often reviewing the specific facts at hand as well as prior criminal history when making the call. There are two instances in which a stalking charge must be tried as a felony: where the accused has a prior stalking conviction, and where the alleged stalking is in violation of a court-ordered protective issue.
Punishments a person convicted of the misdemeanor crime of stalking include a combination of any or all of the following:
- A fine of no more than $1,000;
- No more than one year in jail;
- Summary probation;
- Mandatory counseling and/or placement in a state-run hospital to treat mental illness; and/or
- Restraining orders.
Punishments a person convicted of the felony crime of stalking include a combination of any or all of the following:
- A fine of no more than $1,000;
- 16 months – 5 years’ imprisonment;
- Formal probation;
- Mandatory counseling and/or placement in a state-run hospital to treat mental illness;
- Restraining orders; and/or
- Registration as a sex offender under Penal Code 290 PC.
In some cases, the term of imprisonment may be extended if certain circumstances apply. For instance, causing great bodily harm may add 3-5 years to a prison sentence, while being armed while stalking may add 1-3 years to a sentence.
Civil Remedies for Stalking Victims
Victims of stalking in California may also pursue monetary damages from their stalker through a civil lawsuit. Compensation may be awarded if victims can prove:
- The alleged stalker followed, harassed, or alarmed the victim;
- While making credible threats or violating a restraining order; and
- The victim was reasonably fearful for his or her safety or the safety of his or her immediate family.
A victim’s word or allegation against an alleged stalker is not enough, on its own, to recover damages in a civil lawsuit. To successfully prove that a stalker engaged in a pattern of impermissible conduct, the victim must have convincing evidence apart from their own testimony. Examples of evidence that may be used include surveillance camera footage, letters or tokens left for the victim by the accused, and/or testimony of witnesses corroborating the victim’s story.
The success of a civil lawsuit is not dependent on the failure or success of criminal charges for stalking. A victim may be awarded compensation in a civil suit where criminal prosecution is unsuccessful, or vice versa.
Fighting Stalking Charges in California
While many reports of stalking are valid, there are some instances where the person accused of stalking is a) truly innocent of the charges or b) not guilty by the terms set forth in the law. A person accused of stalking in California may be able to successfully fight the charges if they can provide evidence proving:
- The alleged threat wasn’t credible. A threat is credible if a reasonable person would have been fearful for his or her safety. If an alleged threat would not have caused fear in a reasonable person, the charges may not be successful.
- You were engaged in a Constitutionally-protected activity. California stalking laws do not extend to Constitutionally-protected activities, such as protesting, participating in an assembly, or exercising free speech.
- Mistaken identity. In some cases, a victim may truly receive threats but may misappropriate the blame to an innocent party. Providing evidence that the alleged stalker was in another location and could not have done what is accused can help to thwart successful charges.
- False accusations. While not particularly widespread, some victims may maliciously misuse the protections provided by California’s anti-stalking laws to punish others. For example, a scorned ex-girlfriend may accuse an ex-boyfriend of stalking, when in reality no such behavior occurred, simply to seek revenge.
Crimes Related to Stalking in California
There are instances in which a victim may truly be harassed by another person, but the actions of the alleged stalker fall short of the requirements set out in the anti-stalking law for criminal prosecution. Victims of stalking can take advantage of a number of related laws California has enacted to protect its citizens.
Two of the most utilized laws include prohibitions on annoying phone calls and posting harmful information on the internet.
- California Penal Code 653m PC makes the crime of “annoying phone calls,” which is defined as making unwanted obscene, threatening, or repeated calls, a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in jail.
- California Penal Code 653.2 PC makes the crime of “posting harmful information on the internet,” which is defined as posting information about another on the internet with the intent to cause harm, as a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to one year in jail.
 Cal Pen Code §646.9(f)