A 53-year-old San Francisco man was recently sentenced to 5 years in prison for sending violent and threatening text messages to his ex-partner, with whom he had 3 children. Local law enforcement officials considered his actions to amount to felony stalking , criminally threatening another person, and misdemeanor domestic violence (CA Penal Code 273.5). According to the alleged victim, the man sent texts that suggested he would kill her; he mentioned decapitation several times.
While many of us may have a vague idea as to what the term ‘stalking’ means, California law defines this particular crime in very specific ways. In order for threats, harassment, or following someone to be raised to the level of criminal activity, the person who is being ‘stalked’ must somehow have reached the point that they fear for their safety or for the safety of those who are close to them (see CA Penal Code 646.9). There are, however, problematic issues relating to this particular violation of the law. First and foremost, feelings of fear are a subjective, internal, psychological experience that cannot be measured in exact terms. Second, many different activities that others consider to be ‘normal’ behavior (like sending angry emails or texts without explicit threats to an ex-partner) are considered illegal under this law.
California law concerning stalking is both wide-ranging and the penalties associated with a conviction are severe. Additionally, this crime is usually treated as a ‘wobbler’ (meaning that prosecutors decide whether to treat it as a misdemeanor or as a felony). While a misdemeanor stalking conviction may likely end in up to 1 year in county jail, a $1,000 fine and forced counseling for mental illness, a felony charge is taken far more seriously. If you are convicted of felony stalking in the state of California, you may face up to 5 years in sate prison, counseling, a $1,000 fine and lifetime registration as a California sex offender.