What started out as a prank or some nasty texts can easily turn into a case of cyberbullying. New Jersey takes the issue of cyberbullying (also called cyber harassment) very seriously. If you or a loved one has been charged with violating N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4.1 Crime of Cyber-harassment, you need to understand the serious consequences you may face as well as how to defend yourself against the charges.
What is Cyberbullying Under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4.1?
New Jersey defines cyberbullying/cyber harassment as any kind of communication in an online capacity via any electronic device or through a social networking site that is intended to harass another, and in which the person sending the communication:
- threatens to inflict injury or physical harm to any person or the property of any person;
- knowingly sends, posts, comments, requests, suggests, or proposes any lewd, indecent, or obscene material to or about a person with the intent to emotionally harm a reasonable person or place a reasonable person in fear of physical or emotional harm to his person; or
- threatens to commit any crime against the person or the person’s property.
What are the Penalties for Cyberbullying?
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Cyberbullying is a crime of the fourth degree in New Jersey. The punishment for a conviction of cyberbullying is a prison sentence of up to 18 months and a fine of up to $10,000. However, if the accused is 21 years of age or older at the time of the offense and was impersonating a minor for the purpose of cyberbullying a minor, then it is considered a crime of the third degree. In this case, a conviction can mean three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
Actions that can lead to a charge of cyberbullying can also result in additional charges, such as stalking, which could potentially increase any incarceration time and fines upon conviction. Moreover, in 2016 New Jersey voted to make cyberbullying a predicate act of domestic violence, which means it can also be grounds for a restraining order against the accused.
There are some circumstances that allow for less serious consequences. For example, a minor under the age of 16 who is adjudicated delinquent for cyberbullying may be ordered to complete a class or training program (along with a parent or guardian). This class could be focused on reducing the tendency toward bullying behavior or bringing awareness to the dangers associated with bullying.
Is Cyberbullying a Felony in NJ?
No. N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4.1 Crime of Cyber-harassment can be charged as a fourth-degree crime or third-degree crime as mentioned above based on the circumstances. However, some actions that qualify as cyberbullying in NJ also violate federal cyberstalking laws (U.S.C. 2261A (2)), which is a felony.
Can I Go to Jail for Cyberbullying?
Yes. Jail time is a very real possibility when facing a cyberbullying charge. That’s why it is important that you get legal counsel to avoid a conviction.
How Does a Cyberbullying Conviction Affect My Education?
Many schools, both private and public, as well as universities, have cyberbullying policies. A person charged with cyberbullying could find themselves expelled pending a conviction in court. Other schools, especially private schools and universities, may hold their own investigation, which could result in a punishment regardless of the outcome of the court case. In many cases, evidence used to defend you in court can also be used to defend you in such instances as well.
Can I Lose My Job for Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is not the exclusive domain of students and teenagers. Adults can and do exhibit behavior that violates NJ’s cyberbullying statute. How an employer reacts to an employee being charged with or convicted of cyberbullying–even when it does not occur during work hours–will vary from workplace to workplace. New Jersey is an at-will employment state, which means employers can fire workers for little or no reason at any time. A company may choose to terminate an employee who is charged with cyberbullying simply because it does not want to be affiliated with the person or the associated controversy.
Case Law: New Jersey vs. Dharun Ravi
The most high-profile case of cyberbullying in New Jersey is State vs Dharun Ravi. The 2012 case, which predated the formal cyberbullying statute, saw Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi charged and convicted on 15 counts of crimes involving invasion of privacy, attempted invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution. The charges stemmed from incidents that occurred on September 19-21, 2010, in which Ravi and a friend used a webcam to view a private romantic encounter between Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man. In the second incident, Ravi urged friends and Twitter followers to watch another encounter between Clementi and the same man, though the viewing never occurred. Clementi committed suicide on September 22, resulting in the criminal charges against Ravi. The prosecution alleged that Clementi’s suicide was the direct result of Ravi’s cyberbullying actions.
On May 21, 2012, Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail, three years probation, 300 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine, and counseling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles. Ravi served 20 days of his 30-day jail term from May 31 to June 19, 2012. The case was instrumental in the passage of the bill that would establish N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4.1 as law.
Despite this, a NJ Appeals Court overturned Ravi’s conviction in 2016, saying the bias intimidation law under which the defendant was charged was unconstitutional. A new trial was ordered which later resulted in a plea deal.
Although the case predates New Jersey’s cyberbullying statute, the circumstances of the crime would have allowed for a charge under premise that Ravi knowingly posting obscene material about Clementi online. A conviction would have hinged on the prosecution’s ability to prove that Ravi intended to “emotionally harm” Clementi through his actions.
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What Can be Considered Cyberbullying?
While adults can and do commit acts of cyberbullying, the majority of scenarios involving cyberbullying occur among youths, particularly pre-teens, teenagers and college-age students. One recent study found that 34 percent of children aged 12 to 17 have experienced cyberbullying. Those accused of cyberbullying typically target marginalized groups (minorities, the disabled, or LGBTQ youths) or emotionally vulnerable individuals (i.e. social outcasts or “unpopular” kids).
Today, social media is the common outlet for cyberbullying. Social networks such as Twitter allow individuals to post messages and engage in bullying behavior with others, often anonymously. As was the case with NJ vs Ravi, social media can also be used as a third party for posting information about a person that can be considered cyberbullying. In other words, a person does not have to have direct communication with a specific individual to be charged with cyberbullying him/her.
Another commonly recognized form of cyberbullying, known as “catfishing,” involves one party adopting a false identity to lure another into a relationship. This is often done with the intent of getting compromising information from the victimized party to be used against them at a later date. It can also be used to emotionally manipulate another party, as happened in the 2006 case involving Megan Meier. A 14-year girl from Missouri, Meier committed suicide after an online relationship with a fictional MySpace account turned cruel. The account was run by parents of a friend with whom Meier had a falling out. No charges were filed in the case.
Does a Victim Have to Commit Suicide for Someone to be Charged with Cyberbullying?
Cases of cyberbullying that end in the victim committing suicide most often catch headlines. However, not all cyberbullying results in suicide or even suicidal thoughts. A person can be charged and convicted of cyberbullying even when suicide does not factor into the situation. Still, the frequency of suicide among cyberbullying victims only demonstrates how serious the charges can be and the importance of avoiding a conviction. If a person has made threats or used language that causes the victim to fear for his/her safety; or if a person seems to have intended to cause emotional harm, this can qualify as cyberbullying.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, it is urgent that you contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
Are Schools Responsible for Stopping Cyberbullying?
Given that school-age and college-aged kids are the most common victims of cyberbullying, it is natural that schools find themselves pressured to enforce anti-cyberbullying rules. This puts the school in an awkward and legally difficult position. One challenge is that schools often have little control or authority over children’s behavior unless it occurs on school grounds. The fact that much of the bullying takes place over digital channels makes it unclear just how much schools can and should intervene.
Furthermore, if an anti-cyberbullying policy is too rigid or too aggressively enforced, a school could find itself in trouble for violating free speech rights of its students. Conversely, schools often find themselves liable when cyberbullying takes place and too little is done about it, such as the recent case involving 12-year-old Mallory Grossman. After months of harassment from fellow students via text messages, Instagram and Snapchat, the Rockaway Township cheerleader committed suicide in June 2017. The parents have filed suit against Rockaway Township Schools alleging the teachers and administrators ignored pleas for help and failed to follow its own anti-bullying policies.
How Can I Defend Against a Cyberbullying Charge?
As with any criminal charge, the type of defense will depend on the specific details of the case. Generally speaking, there are two common defenses to behavior that is charged as cyberbullying. The first is to attempt to characterize the communication as a form of personal expression, thus making it legally permissible as free speech. This may be difficult to do when instances of direct violence are expressed.
A second defense requires demonstrating that a reasonable person would not find the actions or communications threatening or emotionally harmful. To do this, the defense would have to prove that the victim is being “over sensitive” and explain why the accused’s words and behavior are not alarming to most rational people. This defense can also be used to avoid getting hit with a restraining order. Case law (citing N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29(a)(1) to-29(a)(6)) shows that most courts will only allow for a final restraining order in cases where a reasonable person would fear for his/her safety.
Intent also plays an important role. Depending on the circumstances, if the defense can prove that the accused had no intention of causing harm or fear, punishment can be mitigated or avoided.
What Should I Do If I Am Accused of Cyberbullying?
If you or someone you love is being accused of or charged with cyberbullying or cyber harassment, the first thing to do is to cease any and all communications with the accuser to avoid exacerbating the situation. The second is to call an attorney with experience handling cases like yours. The lawyers of the Rosenblum Law Firm are expert criminal defense attorneys who have helped fight charges of harassment, cyberbullying, stalking and more. Call 888-815-3649 or email us today for a free consultation about your case.