Stalking is a serious criminal charge that carries heavy penalties, including fines, court-ordered counseling, and even jail or prison time. Stalking is a common charge in Las Vegas, and is often charged as part of a domestic violence case. However, many different scenarios can lead to stalking charges, because the elements of this crime are very broadly defined by Nevada law. Read below to learn about the legal definition of stalking, the enhanced penalties associated with "aggravated stalking," and how a criminal defense attorney can help someone facing these charges.
Stalking is defined by NRS 200.575. According to this statute, stalking is defined as "willfully or maliciously engage[ing] in a course of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, harassed or fearful for the immediate safety of a family or household member." Further, the alleged victim must, in fact, actually feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, harassed, etc.
As you can see, this is can be a very broad definition, depending on how you define some of the key terms. What exactly is a "course of conduct"? Specifically, NRS 200.575(6)(a) defines "course of conduct" as "a pattern of conduct which consists of a series of acts over time that evidences a continuity of purpose directed at a specific person." In other words, a course of conduct is not just a single act, but a continuing pattern of behavior.
But what types of behavior would cause a "reasonable person" to feel terrorized, frightened, etc.? There is no statutory list of behaviors which constitute an intimidating "course of conduct," but as a criminal defense attorney representing individuals charged with this offense, some common alleged behaviors I have observed in stalking cases include the following:
- Unwanted communication (e.g., letters, emails, telephone calls at home or at work, voicemails, social media messages, gifts or flowers mailed or left on a doorstep);
- Following the alleged victim on foot or in a vehicle, or waiting outside her home or work;
- Communicating with the alleged victim's friends, family, or coworkers to find out information;
- Destroying, damaging, or defacing the alleged victim's property.
None of the above behavior has to be overtly threatening in order to qualify as a course of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to feel intimidated or frightened. In other words, if someone repeatedly sends unwanted letters, even if those letters don't contain any physical threats, that person could be charged with stalking, as long as the district attorney believes a reasonable person could feel threatened or frightened by receiving those letters.
First offense stalking is normally a misdemeanor. However, this charge may be enhanced to a felony if it meets certain criteria to be deemed "aggravated stalking." Additionally, stalking may be enhanced to a felony charge if the alleged stalker uses email or the Internet. Read more about aggravated stalking and Internet stalking below, and then read about the potential penalties for misdemeanor and felony stalking.
Pursuant to NRS 200.575(2), a person who commits the crime of stalking "and in conjunction therewith threatens the person with the intent to cause the person to be placed in reasonable fear of death or substantial bodily harm commits the crime of aggravated stalking." In other words, a person who causes the stalking victim to reasonably fear death or substantial bodily harm is guilty of aggravated stalking, a felony.
Note that the definition doesn't require the person accused of stalking to make an actual death threat against the alleged victim. That is, it may be possible, in the prosecutor's opinion, for someone to make another person fear for her life without explicitly making a death threat. For example, if an alleged stalker carried and displayed a gun or other weapon while following the alleged victim, that course of conduct could be charged as aggravated stalking, even though there was no overt death threat made.
Internet stalking, or "cyber stalking," is also a felony. NRS 200.575 (3) defines cyber stalking as committing the crime of stalking "with the use of an Internet or network site, electronic mail, text messaging or any other similar means of communication to publish, display or distribute information in a manner that substantially increases the risk of harm or violence to the victim." In other words, cyber stalking is any stalking committed by using the internet, email, or text messages. However, there is an additional requirement that the use of the Internet by the alleged stalker must "substantially increase… the risk of harm or violence to the victim." But what does this mean? Would sending unwanted text messages (as opposed to letters) increase the "risk of harm or violence to the victim"? In reality, probably not—although that wouldn't necessarily stop a prosecutor from charging cyber stalking under those circumstances. And if there is any perceived "risk of harm or violence to the victim," then the prosecutor can simply charge the defendant with aggravated stalking instead, as this carries a more serious penalty anyway. Read below about the penalties for first offense stalking, second and subsequent offense staking, aggravated stalking, and cyber stalking.
First offense stalking is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Additionally, for any stalking offense, the court may order the defendant, if he is convicted, to undergo psychological counseling, or to stay away from the alleged victim for a certain period of time, facing additional penalties (including jail time for contempt of court) if that "stay away order" is violated.
Second and subsequent offense stalking is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. A gross misdemeanor is in between a simple misdemeanor and a felony in terms of seriousness. If you are convicted of a gross misdemeanor, you can be placed on a period of formal or informal probation for up to 3 years.
Internet or cyber stalking is a category C felony, punishable by 1 to 5 years in a Nevada prison and a $10,000 fine. Aggravated stalking is a category B felony, punishable by 2 to 15 years in a Nevada prison and a $5,000 fine. Both aggravated stalking and cyber stalking are probationable offenses, meaning that if you are convicted of either of these crimes, the judge may suspend the prison sentence and place you on a term of probation of up to 5 years.
DEFENDING STALKING CHARGES
If you have been arrested and are now facing stalking charges, you should speak to a criminal defense attorney immediately. There are many ways to defend a stalking case, depending on the particular facts. For instance, many stalking charges may be based upon false allegations or exaggerations of the truth.
Additionally, stalking does not prohibit any course of conduct that is done with "lawful authority." In particular, pursuant to NRS 200.575(6), stalking does not does include "acts which are otherwise protected or authorized by constitutional or statutory law," including picketing during a strike, doing work as a reporter or photographer for the press, "activities of a person that are carried out in the normal course of his or her lawful employment," and "[a]ny activities carried out in the exercise of the constitutionally protected rights of freedom of speech and assembly."
Keep in mind, same as any criminal case, to convict you of stalking the district attorney must prove the case against you beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high burden. If any reasonable doubt at all can be raised, you are entitled to be acquitted of all charges. But even if the evidence against you is strong, a criminal defense lawyer can still negotiate your case to avoid the harshest criminal penalties. Sometimes it is best to go to trial, and other times it is best to negotiate a plea agreement. This decision can only be made after evaluating all of the evidence in your case.
I have represented many individuals charged with stalking in Las Vegas and throughout Southern Nevada. I offer free consultations to anyone facing criminal charges. Call me now to talk about your case.
By Michael Pandullo