Harassment in Texas

What is Harassment in Texas?

Harassment is defined in Penal Code Section 42.07 and covers a wide variety of actions that are committed with the “intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another” including obscene communication, threatening communication, false alarms about a family member’s serious bodily injury or death, repeated telephone or electronic communications, making phone calls and hanging up, and publishing repeated electronic communications online that are not of a public concern and is likely to cause emotional distress, abuse or torment.

intent for harassment in texas

Intent Requirement in Harassment Laws

Intent

At its core, “intent” refers to the conscious objective or purpose behind an action. For harassment charges, it’s not enough that someone felt harassed; the alleged harasser must have acted with the deliberate purpose of causing distress or discomfort.

Harass

To persistently annoy or torment someone. This could be through repeated unwanted communications, following someone, or other behaviors that persistently disturb the peace of another.

Annoy

To irritate or disturb, usually through some repeated act or action that is unwelcome. It’s less intense than harassment but still causes discomfort.

Alarm

To cause fear or a heightened state of awareness. This could be through threats or actions that make someone fear for their safety or well-being.

Abuse

To treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly. In the context of harassment, it often refers to emotional or psychological mistreatment, though it can also encompass physical actions.

Torment

To inflict severe physical or psychological pain. It’s more intense than mere annoyance and implies a level of cruelty or intensity in the actions.

Embarrass

To cause someone to feel self-conscious or ashamed. This could be through revealing personal information, mocking, or other actions that demean or belittle the person in public or private.

Importance of Intent in Harassment Cases

The intent requirement ensures that only those who act with a malicious or harmful purpose are held legally accountable. Accidental or unintentional actions that might annoy or even alarm someone wouldn’t typically meet this standard.

For example, if someone sends a text to the wrong number, even if the recipient is annoyed, there’s no intent to harass or annoy, so it wouldn’t be considered harassment under the law.

Proving Intent

Intent is generally proven circumstantially. Evidence such as repeated actions (like multiple unwanted messages), direct threats, or other behaviors can be used to demonstrate intent.

Examples of Harassment in Texas

To qualify as harassment, the acts must be done with the specific “intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another.” The context, frequency, and relationship between the parties involved play a crucial role in determining whether an act can be legally classified as harassment.

  1. Obscene Communication:

    • Definition: Sending messages that contain lewd, vulgar, or indecent material.
    • Example: A person sends explicit photos or messages with graphic descriptions of sexual acts to another individual without their consent, intending to offend or disturb them.
  2. Threatening Communication:

    • Definition: Making threats of harm or violence.
    • Example: Someone sends a text message saying, “Watch your back, I’m coming for you,” or “You’ll regret crossing me.”
  3. False Alarms about a Family Member’s Serious Bodily Injury or Death:

    • Definition: Deliberately conveying false information about the serious injury or death of a family member.
    • Example: A person calls another individual and falsely informs them that their sibling has been in a severe car accident, intending to cause panic and distress.
  4. Repeated Telephone or Electronic Communications:

    • Definition: Sending multiple unwanted phone calls, texts, emails, or other electronic messages.
    • Example: An ex-partner sends dozens of emails and texts over a short period, even after being asked to stop, with the intent to annoy or torment the recipient.
  5. Making Phone Calls and Hanging Up:

    • Definition: Calling someone and intentionally disconnecting without speaking, especially when done repeatedly.
    • Example: Over several days, an individual receives multiple calls from an unknown number. Each time they answer, the caller immediately hangs up, causing confusion and anxiety.
  6. Publishing Repeated Electronic Communications Online Not of Public Concern:

    • Definition: Posting multiple messages or content online, especially on social media, that isn’t related to public concerns and is likely to cause emotional distress.
    • Example: Someone takes private messages from a past relationship and repeatedly posts them on various social media platforms, not because they’re of public interest, but to embarrass and torment their ex-partner.

Understanding Harassment in Texas

Harassment in Texas: Offense Level and Punishment

Class B Misdemeanor

Harassment is generally classified as a Class B misdemeanor when a person commits an offense under the provisions of the harassment statute without any prior convictions for harassment.
• Punishment:
• Up to 180 days in jail.
• A fine of up to $2,000.
• Or both the fine and imprisonment.

Class A Misdemeanor

If the offender has a previous conviction for harassment, the subsequent offense is elevated to a Class A misdemeanor.
• Punishment:
• Up to one year in jail.
• A fine of up to $4,000.
• Or both the fine and imprisonment.

Legal Challenges to the Harassment Statute in Texas

In a 5-4 split decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas ruled the harassment statute in Texas is not unconstitutionally overbroad in its restriction of free speech. The portion of the harassment statute that became the basis of the appeal was the limitation of repeated messages meant to harass. Judge Scott Walker writing for the majority held the criminal prohibition in Texas Penal Code § 42.07(a)(7) against “electronic communications” repeatedly sent with the intent and likely result to “harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend” the recipient punishes “conduct,” did not implicate the First Amendment, and is not subject to any overbreadth analysis. So the harassment statute is still on the books in Texas although lawyers are hoping the Supreme Court will take up the case.

Barton Challenge

• Case: Ex parte Barton
• Issue: The intermediate court of appeals held that § 42.07 (a) (7) of the Penal Code, which pertains to electronic harassment, is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad under the First Amendment.
• Status: The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the statute and now a writ has been filed with the United States Supreme Court.

Sanders Challenge

• Case: Ex parte Sanders
• Issue: The state’s highest criminal court upheld a state law that makes it a crime to send repeated emails, texts, and other electronic messages with the intent to harass, annoy, or embarrass focusing on the act rather than the speech.
• Status: The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the statute and now a writ has been filed with the United States Supreme Court.

Defenses in Harassment Cases in Texas:

  1. Lack of Intent:

    The Texas Penal Code requires that the alleged harasser acted with the “intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another.” If this intent cannot be proven, it can serve as a defense.
  2. Mistaken Identity:

    The defendant can argue that they were not the person who committed the alleged harassment. This could be supported by alibis, witness testimonies, or other evidence.
  3. Consent:

    If the alleged victim had given prior consent to the actions or communications that are now being labeled as harassment, it can serve as a defense.
  4. First Amendment Rights:

    In some cases, the defendant might argue that their actions or communications are protected by the First Amendment, especially if the alleged harassment is based on speech or expression. However, this defense has limitations, especially when the speech involves threats or obscenities.
  5. Truth:

    In cases where the harassment allegation involves spreading false information, proving the truth of the statement can serve as a defense.
  6. Insufficient Evidence:

    Simply put, if there isn’t enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed harassment, it can serve as a defense.
  7. Accidental Communication:

    If the defendant can prove that the communication was accidental and not intended to harass, it can be used as a defense.

These are just examples of possible defenses. Any successful defense must be specific to the allegations you are facing.

If you been charged with harassment in Tarrant County or a bordering county, give us a call at (817) 203-2220.

harassment in Texas

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About the Author Board Certified Lawyer Benson Varghese

About the Author

Benson Varghese is the managing partner of Varghese Summersett. He is a seasoned attorney, highly esteemed for his comprehensive knowledge and expertise in the field. He has successfully handled thousands of state and federal cases, ranging from misdemeanor driving while intoxicated cases to capital offenses, showcasing his commitment to preserving justice and upholding the rights of his clients. His firm covers criminal defense, personal injury, and family law matters. Benson is also a legal tech entrepreneur. Benson is a go-to authority in the legal community, known for his ability to explain complex legal concepts with clarity and precision. His writings offer a wealth of in-depth legal insights, reflecting his extensive experience and his passion for the law. Not only is Benson an accomplished litigator, but he is also a dedicated advocate for his clients, consistently striving to achieve the best possible outcomes for them. His authorship provides readers with valuable legal advice and an understanding of the complexities of the criminal justice system. CriminalPersonal InjuryFamily Law Contact
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