Defending against a Harassment Charge in Pennsylvania
Harassment is a criminal offense in Pennsylvania found in the statutory code at 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709. Harassment is a misdemeanor in some situations, but is often graded as a “summary offense.” A summary offense means that it is essentially on par with a traffic ticket. Summary offenses do not create a formal criminal record in most cases; however, this does not mean that a harassment charge is unimportant or that it should be ignored. An individual charged with harassment has all of the typical rights of a criminal defendant, including the right to an attorney. You can watch this short video to learn more about the harassment statute, or you can read more below.
There are four types of harassment that are summary offenses.
Section 2709 of the Crimes Code authorizes charges of summary criminal Harassment where a Defendant 1) hits or kicks someone (or tries to); 2) stalks someone in a public place; 3) repeatedly commits actions that have no purpose other than to harass someone else; 4) says, writes or draws something dirty or obscene about someone. In all of these cases, the Commonwealth (that is, the cops or the prosecutor) must prove the Defendant acted with an intent to harass, annoy or alarm the person.
There are three types of harassment that are misdemeanors.
Misdemeanor harassment is charged when the Defendant 1) repeatedly communicates anonymously (by calling from blocked numbers, communicating via an app, or by writing unsigned notes, for example); 2) continues calling or ringing a doorbell in the middle of the night or at disrespectful times; 3) or communicates repeatedly when asked to stop. Once again, the Commonwealth must prove the Defendant had an intent to harass.
Given these factors, here are three things you should consider if charged with criminal harassment in Pennsylvania.
Is there an allegation of physical contact?
If there is an allegation of physical contact, the contact must be harmful, offensive and intentional to satisfy the requirements of the statute. Neither incidental contact nor contact that the average person would not consider harmful is enough. It is only where an individual intended to harass someone and have the high level of criminal intent necessary to satisfy the statute that such physical contact will satisfy the requirements of a harassment charge.
Intent is the hardest element to prove in the law. Intent can only be proven in most cases by either what someone said, or by showing that their actions demonstrated their state of mind. Showing the intent to harass someone is difficult, and the burden always rests on the government to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Was there a course of conduct?
If there is no physical contact than the government must show there was more than an isolated incident to satisfy the requirements of the harassment statute. The police must present evidence that there was intentional stalking, following, continual aggravated speech, repeated threats or other conduct or words that would rise to the level of a criminal action of harassment. For example, the police must show that threats threats were made, and that the threatening party followed the victim to multiple places over a period of time.
In previous cases, our attorneys have defended individuals charged with ringing the phone in the middle of the night repeatedly, with making threats of violence over the phone, and with communicating anonymously via computer programs and phone apps. In each of these cases, by limiting the incidents proven by the government, our attorneys have been able to beat charges or reduce the penalties faced by the Defendant.
The Constitution bars some harassment charges
As with all criminal statutes, you have important constitutional rights in defending against the officer or other government agent who is prosecuting you. You have a right to remain silent. You have a right not to speak to the officer who contacts you. You have the right not to have evidence gathered against you in an unconstitutional way. You also may have important First Amendment defenses if the harassment claim is based largely or entirely on speech. The First Amendment gives a broad rights to speak freely, even where that speech is offensive to others.
The First Amendment is an important consideration in harassment cases because the government cannot penalize “pure speech.” Put differently, you cannot legally be convicted of a crime just because someone didn’t like what you said. The government (the cops and prosecutor) will bear the burden to prove that your words fall into an exception to the First Amendment, such as the “true threat” exception.
Conclusion: we defend clients in Reading, Allentown, Harrisburg, Lancaster, York, Scranton and beyond
If you have been charged with harassment in Pennsylvania, you should contact an attorney right away to discuss your rights. At Cornerstone Law Firm, we defend people throughout the Commonwealth who have been charged with harassment and other crimes. Call us today at 610-926-7875 for a free consultation to discuss your case and your rights.