18 U.S. Code § 2261A - Federal Stalking Laws
Stalking cases are usually prosecuted in state courts under state laws. However, suppose the stalking crosses state borders or occurs within United States maritime jurisdictions. Further, suppose the act of stalking used the mail system or electronic communications at an interstate level. In that case, stalking could be charged under federal law.
This law is codified under 18 U.S. Code 2261A. It imposes stricter penalties and expands the definition of “stalking” to include electronic communications, such as social media platforms, now a standard method of contacting others. As such, it is a primary means of committing crimes, such as stalking.
18 U.S.C. 2261A says, “Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or is present within United States jurisdiction, with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance, or intimidate another person, and in the course of, or as a result of, such travel or presence engages in conduct that (A) places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to (i) that person; (ii) an immediate family member (iii) a spouse or intimate partner of that person, or (iv) the pet, service animal, emotional support animal, or horse of that person….”
Subsection (2) says it's illegal for somebody to engage in lewd conduct using interstate commerce's mail or electronic communication system.
Traditional stalking cases always meant a physical presence between the perpetrator and the alleged victim. In other words, the stalker needed to be somewhere near the victim.
However, the crime of staking now includes using electronic means to communicate with a victim in a manner that causes them harm or emotional turmoil. Simply put, a physical presence is only sometimes necessary.
This means the difference between stalking and cyberstalking is how the offenses occurred. Still, the impact on the alleged victim remains the same. So let's review this federal statute further below.
What Is Stalking Under Federal Law?
Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1996 which contained anti-stalking language to provide greater protections for victims.
It is called the Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act, which made it a federal offense to cross state lines with intent to harm or harass someone.
You can violate 18 U.S.C. 2261A federal stalking laws if you travel across state lines or into federal jurisdiction, including Indian territory, intending to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place someone in fear of death or physical injury.
Also, as noted, this federal law covers mail or electronic communication threats, including by phone, email, and social media posts. In other words, there is a wide range of conduct that would fall under the umbrella of stalking, such as the following:
- Behavior that intends to harass, intimidate, injure, or kill someone, including surveillance of them;
- Acting in a manner that causes the victim to be in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death or injury or to their immediate family members or their pet, service animal, or horse;
- Any attempts to cause substantial emotional distress to the victim or act in a way that would be reasonably expected to cause such a reaction.
Other important information you should know about this law:
- To be convicted of violating federal stalking laws, prosecutors have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you engaged in the course of conduct, including two or more acts of stalking, rather than a single incident. Simply put, stalking must be a pattern of behavior, not one incident of harassment;
- To “harass” somebody means using repeated words, conduct, or behavior that serves no legitimate purpose other than to annoy, alarm, or cause distress to the victim.
- Violating this federal law is a felony offense that carries up to five years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a fine of up to $250,000, but it will always depend on the severity of the crime.
What Are the Related Federal Crimes?
18 U.S. Code Chapter 110A domestic violence and stalking contains numerous federal laws that are related to 18 U.S. Code 2261A stalking, such as the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 2261 – Interstate domestic violence;
- 18 U.S.C. 2261B – Enhanced penalty for stalking children;
- 18 U.S.C. 2262 – Interstate violation of a protection order;
- 18 U.S.C. 2263 – Pretrial release of defendant;
- 18 U.S.C. 2264 – Restitution;
- 18 U.S.C. 2265 – Full faith and credit given to protection orders;
- 18 U.S.C. 2265A – Repeat offenders;
- 18 U.S.C. 2266 – Definitions;
- 18 U.S.C. 1801 – Video voyeurism.
Common Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 2261A
A federal criminal defense lawyer could use different legal strategies if you were charged with a federal stalking case, as discussed below.
Maybe we could argue that there was a lack of intent. Recall that under 18 U.S.C. 2261A, the federal prosecutor has to prove that you intended to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place someone in fear.
Without this intent, you can't be found guilty under this law. So, for example, perhaps you had a reasonable belief that your repeated calls and text messages were welcomed and a proper way to stay in touch with them.
Maybe we can argue that you were not deliberately trying to annoy, harass, or frighten them. Perhaps we could say that you had a First Amendment right to free speech, which protects your right to freedom of speech and expression, which could include some online comments.
Maybe we could argue that your conduct does not rise to a level that should be considered harassment, meaning it didn't annoy or alarm the alleged victim. Perhaps we can negotiate a favorable plea agreement if your guilt is not in doubt.
You can contact our law firm for a free case consultation by phone or the contact form. We provide legal representation across the United States on federal criminal issues. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, California.