Criminal harassment in Massachusetts is a very serious charge that carries severe penalties.
But unlike the harassment you may think of in the everyday context, criminal harassment that can result in jail time involves much more than simply annoying behavior or even rude conduct.
Instead, criminal harassment generally involves a pattern of acts made against someone that causes that person substantial emotional distress. (M.G.L. c. 265, § 43A). For example, criminal harassment can include terrorizing late-night phone calls, tormenting and endless text messages, and a series of lewd and disturbing emails.
Typically, criminal harassment in Massachusetts is comprised of four elements.
The person accused of the crime must have knowingly engaged in a pattern of conduct or series of acts directed against a specific individual. A “pattern of conduct” is often interpreted to mean that the defendant has engaged in at least three incidents of harassment. So in most cases, a single harassing act would not be enough to constitute criminal harassment.
The acts of harassment must be so serious as to cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. “Substantial emotional distress” means much more than making someone feel uneasy, nervous, or unhappy. Instead, substantial emotional distress generally means that the defendant’s actions would have created a significant and considerable amount of emotional distress to a reasonable person, as opposed to someone who is overly sensitive.
The victim must have actually been seriously alarmed by the defendant’s conduct. A hypothetical injury to the victim would not be enough. This is true even if the harassing conduct would have caused serious alarm in most people, but not with the victim.
The defendant engaged in the harassing acts willfully and maliciously. Generally, this means that the act was done intentionally, without justification, and that a reasonable person would have foreseen that harm would have resulted from the conduct.
Only if all four elements are met, can someone be convicted of criminal harassment in Massachusetts. As you can see, the crime is quite complex and involves many different layers of analysis.
If you are convicted of criminal harassment, you face very severe penalties. Someone convicted of the crime for the first time faces up to two and one-half years in a house of corrections as well as a possible $1,000 fine.
Repeat offenders, or those who have previously been convicted of criminal stalking (M.G.L. c. 265, § 43), face two and one-half years in a house of corrections or ten years in a state prison.
Within these guidelines, a judge may consider several factors in determining a defendant’s specific sentence including the amount of harm caused to the victim, any remorse shown, past criminal history, and other relevant factors.
Because of the steep penalties associated with criminal harassment in Massachusetts, it is important that you work with a criminal defense attorney if you are charged with the crime. An experienced attorney can work on the elements of your defense, explain your options, and help keep you out of jail.