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Cyberstalking and Civil “Violence” Injunctions

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Civil injunctions regarding personal safety are addressed in Florida Statutes 741.30. Originally the scope only included domestic violence – situations where the alleged victim and aggressor are family or have shared a common household.

The law subsequently evolved to include the option of pursuit of civil injunctions for repeat violence – situations where the victim and aggressor have not ever shared the same household and where there have been at least two or more incidents (within 6 months of the date of filing of the petition) by the alleged aggressor against the petitioner/victim or the petitioner’s immediate family member. See Florida Statutes 784.046.

With technology, comes great advancement, great responsibility, and greater risk of violation of human rights. It is with these risks in mind that the Florida Legislature expanded civil injunction remedies to include cyberstalking as potential offense and/or aggravating factor in assessing the suitability of civil injunctions.

Both the statutes and the forms related to the filing for such injunctions (Florida Supreme Court Form 12.980(a) for domestic violence and Florida Supreme Court Form 12.980(f) for repeat violence) now include cyberstalking as a potential issue giving rise to the victim has “reasonable cause to believe he or she is in imminent danger” from the alleged aggressor. The question of the parties’ “cyber past” is also part of the pertinent “relevant history” section of each petition.

Florida Statutes 784.048(d) defines the crime of cyberstalking as “engag[ing] in a course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose.”

There are three elements to this cause of action. First, the communication must be directed at the alleged victim. Broad, vague and general assertions posted on Facebook would not suffice, but naming a person in such a post or directly texting the alleged victim would qualify. Second, the communication must cause substantial emotional distress. The standard is that of a reasonable person-so causing distress in a very emotionally fragile person would not trigger the injunction. Finally, in the communication must not serve a “legitimate purpose”. For example, if you have parents who do not get along, one of whom is merely attempting to engage in parental responsibility, and the other who ignores them, the parent ignoring cannot claim “cyberstalking” to avoid co-parenting, since in such a situation the parent attempting contact has “legitimate purpose” in co-parenting the child or children.

Unsolicited emails, harassment, and public shame via social media may all be sources of evidence of cyber stalking. Many people presume they have some right to privacy in these forums, but they are incorrect. Once something is published to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram or even Snapchat (which deletes after a brief posting) it is 100% viable for screen capture – and potentially can be presented to the court in a cyberstalking injunction proceeding.

In addition to being relevant to civil injunction requests regarding domestic or repeat violence, cyberstalking is punishable in and of itself as a first degree misdemeanor (a criminal action prosecuted by the State of Florida separate and apart from the question of the injunction).

There are, additionally, remedies for violation of “regular” no-contact domestic violence or repeat violence injunctions by defendants who thereafter use cyber contact to attempt to circumvent the “in person” limitations of the injunction injunction. These violations are similarly tagged as criminal offenses pursuant to 784.048(4).

Be aware, therefore, that what you publish on the internet DOES matter – and can have devastating consequences “IRL.”

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