In general, harassing phone calls are distinguished from unwanted phone calls based on obscene or threatening language used to intimidate or scare the recipient. A phone call must hold malicious intentions in order to be classified as harassment punishable under California state laws.
What makes telephone calls a crime in California?
Under California Penal Code 653m, certain elements of a telephone call can lead to liability for criminal activity. The first element is the act of making a telephone call or electronic communication. This can be done via telephone, smartphone, computer, pager, or recorder, among other communication devices. This means that forms of electronic harassment could include text messages, phone calls, emails, faxes, picture messages, video messages, or voice recordings. A defendant can be accused of violating Penal Code 653m even if he/she was not the one to initiate the call. A violation may exist if he/she requested the electronic communication. The next element is the use of obscene language that is meant to threaten or injure the recipient, his/her family and/or property. This includes repeated calls or communication attempts, regardless of the content. The last element is the intent to harass or annoy a victim. There is no violation if the communication is made with the intention of legitimate business purposes, even though certain business calls might seem as nuisance.
What are the penalties for violation of Penal Code 653m?
Since harassing phone calls or communications are considered misdemeanors in California, a defendant is subject to certain penalties under state law. The maximum penalty is a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in county jail, or both. The defendant might also be sentenced to misdemeanor probation, which incurs a sentence to receive and participate in a form of counseling. Often times, violation of Penal Code 653m occurs along with the violation of a restraining order, under California Penal Code 273.6, or can be classified under California Penal Code 646.9, which is stalking or cyberstalking. If a harassing phone call contains a collection of these offenses, the defendant will be charged for more than one offense with added convictions.
What are legal defenses against a violation of Penal Code 653m?
There are several legal defenses that can be brought against Penal Code 653m charges. The first is that the defendant did not have the intention of harassment. This would mean that defendant might have acted under mental incapacitation or business purposes without the intent to harass. The second defense is that the language or conduct cannot be classified as obscene. Because of issues around violation of constitutional freedom of speech, obscene language has to be narrowed down to graphic or profane words. Other defenses could include pleading legal insanity of a defendant suffering from an emotional disorder/mental disability, or claiming that prosecution has fabricated harassment claims.
Though telephone companies offer privacy settings, unlawful call complaint centers, and blocking capabilities, it is difficult to tell when a communication is considered just an annoyance or a legitimate form of harassment.
At our law firm, we help inform clients regarding the laws and regulations that apply to telephone call harassment. You may contact us in order to setup an initial consultation.