Can you Go to Jail for Stalking Someone?

There may be several reasons why you wish to follow someone. It could be an eligible single who you would like to know better or to find out what your estranged partner or an ex is up to. And yet while following someone you should be careful of staying away from behavior that can be interpreted as stalking by the law. In extreme cases, stalking is punishable by law and the offender can be sent to jail as well.

What qualifies as stalking?

Simply defined, stalking is a willful, malicious, repeated following or harassing of a person. According to Stephen Thompson, sexual assault services coordinator at Central Michigan University, "Stalking is any behavior that would make a reasonable person feel threatened, intimidated, annoyed or afraid." It could be that you are following somebody or trying to contact him/her. But for your behavior to legally qualify as stalking, it should meet one or more of the following conditions:
Reasonableness – in order for a behavior to be labeled as stalking, the law usually considers if a reasonable person can feel threatened by the action involved. This implies actions which would disturb a regular, normally-adjusted social being as opposed to harmless actions which are enough to freak out paranoid or delusional persons.

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  • Repetition – one of the essential characteristics of stalking is that it happens again and again. Your behavior would conform to stalking if you repeatedly call someone on the phone, email him/her, writes letters or graffiti, and wait for him/her outside their house, school or workplace persistently.
     
  • Notice – this is again a crucial marker of stalking. An obsessive behavior is categorically labeled as stalking if the victim has already told the perpetrator that the latter’s stalking behavior makes him/her uncomfortable, that they is not to do it again and yet, they still do it. So if your object of attention has asked you to stop following him/her around and even then you continue to do it, your behavior may qualify as stalking.
     
  • Effect – a behavior can qualify as stalking if the victim feels scared by it, no matter whether it is intended as such or not. Threatening behavior can range from overt abuses and threats to sending seemingly romantic gifts like flowers, candy or bizarre ones like a dog tooth, blood soaked feather and the like. At times threatening behavior may also include manipulative acts as when the perpetrator vows to commit suicide if the victim doesn’t respond to the ‘emergency’ by initiating contact with him/her in some form.
     
  • Avoidability – if the victim can easily avoid the situation, then the behavior may not qualify as stalking, especially in absence of previous characteristics. However if you are waiting at a place that the object of your attention cannot avoid going to or you are forcing him/her to confront them in a manner that they cannot escape, then it is definitely an indication of stalking.
     
  • Defamation – the perpetrator often lies about the victim to others. For instance you may spread false reports of the person’s infidelity or lie to others about having had sex with him/her.
     
  • Objectification – The perpetrator derogates the victim, reducing him/her to an object. This behavior allows the stalker to feel angry with the victim without experiencing empathy or guilt.

If you are following someone in a way that matches most of the above guidelines, then your behavior may qualify as stalking. However, where the behaviour is overtly threatening, even a single incident may be considered criminal harassment. Stalking is part of criminal harassment that is an offence in the criminal codes of most developed societies.

If the person you are following decides that you are stalking him/her, it is likely that he/she will contact the police. The officer will write a report about the incident and ask the victim to prepare a written statement of the complaint. After the complaint is filed, the police will investigate the issue. They will ask about the harassment and collect as much evidence as possible. These could include:
 

  • Any relevant details that the victim knows about you. For example, does he or she know that you have a gun, a criminal record, or an existing court order not to contact the person?
     
  • Written records with details about every contact. These usually include dates, times, places and what you said or did while contacting the person. These records will be pertinent in case the victim decides to go to court. Also the victim’s friends may keep records if you have been contacting them as well.
     
  • Anything that you may have sent the victim likes notes, gifts, phone messages or even flowers.
     
  • A list of witnesses, including names and telephone numbers.

If the police think there is enough evidence of an offence, you may be charged with stalking. In some states, the police must consult with the state prosecutor before they lay charges. Even if the evidence is not substantial, police may still believe the accusation of stalking against you and suggest other legal options such as a peace bond, restraining order or protection order.

Depending on what has happened and the type of evidence, the police might charge you with one or more Criminal Code offences, such as criminal harassment, trespassing at night, assault, uttering threats or intimidation. However this does not mean that you will be immediately arrested and sent to jail. The case would depend on the facts and the seriousness of your behavior. Even if you are arrested and taken before a judge or a Justice of the Peace, you might have recourse to one of the following options:
 

  • Released on an "undertaking"  or a promise that usually has conditions to stay away from the victim and other related persons.
     
  • Released on bail after signing a "recognizance" or a promise to appear in court which includes a financial penalty for
    not showing up and perhaps restrictions like promising not to contact the victim.
     
  • Kept in jail until the trial. This would happen only if your behavior was threatening enough to qualify as the worst kind of stalking and the court believes that you may not show up, or will commit another offence before the trial.

Thus there are specific conditions under which you can be sent to jail for stalking. But even if there is not enough evidence, it is better you stay on the safer side of the law and avoid any behavior which can be construed as criminal harassment including stalking.