July 1 is the traditional time for new changes to Tennessee’s laws to take effect. Although laws can become effective on other dates, many laws are written to take effect on July 1, the beginning of the State’s fiscal year. This year is no exception; we have many new legislative changes that will take effect in two weeks.
Two new legislative changes that are important to criminal defense, domestic relations and family law attorneys, as well as their clients, have to do with how our laws define stalking and harassment. Many family law situations involve allegations of stalking and harassment, and Tennessee law has made this kind of conduct a crime for many years now, but before these changes to the law offenders could sometimes get away with some very distressing conduct because the law was unclear about the use of electronic communications and social media to stalk or harass a victim.
The first change is to the criminal code regarding stalking, but because this definition is also used in the civil Order of Protection statute, the new definition will apply there too, so it will apply to both the crime of stalking as well as the conduct that would permit a person to obtain a civil Order of Protection. It broadens the term stalking to include both direct contact with a victim and indirect contact through a third party. “Unconsented contact” is also expanded to include contact via text message or any other type of electronic message sent through the internet, a web site or social media.
On a similar note, the crime of misdemeanor harassment is broadened to include communication with someone that is without a lawful purpose, with the intent that the manner, frequency or means of the communication annoys, offends, alarms or frightens the recipient. “Communication” under this law expressly includes posts to social media, social networks and websites.
So, it may now be more possible for a victim to obtain criminal prosecution of offenses that are committed using electronic or social media, as well as for a victim to obtain an Order of Protection where the stalker or cyber-bully used electronic means to conduct their campaign of fear. Our clients need to keep in mind that under these new versions of the law, electronic communication and posting on social media, can be the basis for prosecution or the issuance of an Order of Protection against them just like old-school phone calls and verbal threats and nasty notes. The law now considers these the same thing for purposes of deciding if someone has been a victim of stalking or harassment. For purposes of determining whether someone has been stalking another, it’s also important to note that getting someone else to follow or surveil another person might result in criminal prosecution as well violation of an Order of Protection. For that reason, enlisting your friends as free private investigators could be a very bad idea.