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Is Cyberstalking a Federal Crime?

Generally, stalking occurs when a person engages in a pattern of conduct against another individual with the intent to cause fear or emotional distress. Communication systems and devices provide various tools for people to commit stalking offenses. When a person uses something such as the internet, a cell phone, or social media to harass another person, that's referred to as cyberstalking.

In some cases, cyberstalking can be charged as a state crime; however, because of the way such an offense is conducted, it's more likely going to be considered a federal crime.

What Makes Cyberstalking a Federal Crime?

In the U.S., there are state laws and federal laws. State laws are those pertaining to prohibited conduct within that state's borders. Federal laws concern conduct that, among other things, crosses state borers – referred to as interstate.

Iowa does have a law that prohibits stalking (Iowa Code 708.11). It provides that a person commits an offense when they purposely engage in repeated behavior that makes another feel fear, terror, fright, intimidation, or threatened. The conduct may take place when the alleged actor is in physical proximity to the alleged victim or through written communication. Because this is a state law, it applies to conduct that occurs within Iowa.

But in most cases, when someone cyberstalks another, their actions take place online or through text messages. Typically, this form of communication crosses state lines, making it a federal offense.

The federal law that may apply to cyberstalking matters is 18 U.S. Code § 2261A. Although this statute is referred to as "stalking," which some people may associate with physical actions, it does contain a provision that prohibits such behavior when it occurs through electronic communication systems.

The law specifically states that it's a crime for a person to use any of the following to commit a stalking offense:

  • Mail;
  • Electronic communication service;
  • Electronic communication system of interstate commerce; or
  • Any other type of interstate service

Under federal law, cyberstalking occurs when any of the above methods are used to engage in two or more acts against a person that would make the individual fear death or serious injury or that would cause "substantial emotional distress."

The fear or emotional distress does not have to be inflicted only on the alleged victim for the behavior to be considered unlawful.

A cyberstalking offense occurs when the alleged victim or any of the following fear harm:

  • The alleged victim's immediate family member;
  • Their spouse; or
  • Their pet or emotional support animal

Examples of Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking can be committed in various ways. The FBI recently reported two cases it investigated involving this offense. In the first, a man from Texas was convicted of cyberstalking for causing emotional distress to his ex-girlfriend. The man allegedly forced his ex to have sex with him by repeatedly threatening to send nude photos of her. He also created a social media page that divulged her private personal information.

A second man from Oklahoma was convicted of cyberstalking after he texted a woman, threatening to share nude photos of her if she didn't send him $50,000.

Even more recently, in Iowa, a Cresco man is facing cyberstalking charges for posting on social media nude photographs of a woman in Minnesota he dated. He also sent the images to her family, friends, and co-workers. Investigators allege that the man traveled to Minnesota with the intent to harass the woman and cause emotional distress.

Conviction Penalties for Federal Cyberstalking

The penalties a person could face if they're convicted under federal cyberstalking laws depend on the circumstances.

Possible punishments include:

  • Up to life in prison if someone dies as a result of the conduct;
  • Up to 20 years in prison if the alleged victim suffers permanent disfigurement or a life-threatening injury;
  • Up to 10 years in prison if serious bodily injury results; or
  • Up to 5 years in prison in all other situations

The alleged offender can also be fined if they're convicted.

Are you facing federal charges? At Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger, our Iowa City attorneys understand the seriousness of these accusations and will fight aggressively on your behalf to protect your rights and freedoms. Contact us at (319) 499-5524 today.