Everyone knows how difficult it can be to tell tone from a text message or email. It is easy to mistake a message meant to be lighthearted or sarcastic for sincere anger. Misunderstandings like this happen all the time.
Similarly, the line between legal electronic communication and cyberstalking is not always clear. For example, if you text someone three or four times without a response, is that illegal cyberstalking or being a bit rude? What if you needed to get ahold of them because of an emergency?
Under Massachusetts law, cyberstalking occurs when someone sends someone else electronic messages that serve no legitimate purpose and cause the recipient substantial emotional distress. Thus, things like the content of the messages, the context in which they were sent and the recipient’s reaction must be taken on a case-by-case basis.
Threats sent over email, DMs
Having said that, there are cases where cyberstalking is hard to deny. In one recent case in Massachusetts, a woman’s ex-boyfriend sent her a string of threats and harassment through email and social media messages. Among the messages:
- “You’re gonna die.” (Signed “Grim Reaper”)
- “I’m gonna find you and kill you if it’s the last thing I do.”
- “When the time is right you gonna be one of the girls going missing. Ima torture the f— out of you when I catch you.”
- “I’ll kill you. I’m back in Boston.”
After promising to stop the threats, the ex-boyfriend stopped contacting her for a few weeks. Then the threats to harm and kill her resumed. Eventually, police found the man and arrested him on cyberstalking charges. He recently pleaded guilty in federal court. He could face up to five years in prison.
Not every case of alleged cyberstalking is as cut and dried as this one. If you get charged, you might be able to explain the purpose behind the messages or show that the recipient’s fears were not reasonable, given the messages’ content.