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Federal Stalking

18 U.S. Code § 2261A - Federal Stalking 

Every state has laws that make stalking a crime, and most cases are prosecuted under state laws in state courtrooms by local district attorneys.

However, when stalking occurs across state or international borders or involves using the United States mail system or electronic communications at an interstate level, then the crime of stalking can be charged as a federal crime with harsher penalties if convicted.

18 U.S. Code § 2261A - Federal Stalking 
The crime of stalking can be filed as a federal offense when it crosses state lines or borders.

In our increasingly modern society with widespread internet and social media use, communicating with others electronically is standard procedure. This means many allegations of stalking now occur online, called “cyberstalking." 

However, there are still many cases of stalking involving the physical presence of an alleged perpetrator near the victim. Stalking allegations are typically related to domestic violence, but many other cases are related to a sexual fixation on someone.

For example, suppose someone has an unhealthy sexual fixation on a girl he met in school. After graduation, she moves to another state, but the person obsessed with her obtains her address and travels to her home.

Once there, he sat outside her house to watch every move but did not approach her or make threats, but she did notice him sitting outside, which caused her severe emotional distress. Thus, since he crossed state lines in the act of surveilling her and caused her reasonable distress, he could face charges for violating 18 U.S.C. 2261A federal staking law.

The difference between traditional stalking and cyberstalking is how the conduct is carried out, but the underlying impact on the victim is the same.

What Does Federal Law Say?

The full text of 18 U.S. Code 2261A Stalking says, Whoever—

(1) travels in interstate or foreign commerce or is present within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or enters or leaves Indian country with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, 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 (as defined in section 115) of that person,

(iii) a spouse or intimate partner of that person, or

(iv) the pet, service animal, emotional support animal, or horse of that person, or

(B) causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress to a person described in clause (i), (ii), or (iii) of subparagraph (A); or

(2) with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person, uses the mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or electronic communication system of interstate commerce, or any other facility of interstate or foreign commerce to engage in a course of conduct that—

(A) places that person in reasonable fear of the death of or serious bodily injury to a person, a pet, a service animal, an emotional support animal, or a horse described in clauses (i), (ii), (iii), or (iv) of paragraph (1)(A); or

(B) causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress to a person described in clause (i), (ii), or (iii) of paragraph (1)(A),
shall be punished as provided in section 2261(b) or section 2261B, as the case may be.”

What Is Stalking Under Federal Law?

Within the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1996, Congress also passed an anti-stalking law to provide stronger protections for victims and close gaps in the law. 

This law is called the “Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act,” which makes it a federal offense to cross state lines with intent to harm or harass someone.  It imposes stricter penalties and expands the definition of “stalking” to include electronic communications, including phone, email, and social media posts.

Simply put, you could be found guilty of federal stalking when you travel across state lines or into federal jurisdiction with the intent to:

  • Kill,
  • Injure,
  • Harass,
  • Intimidate, or
  • Place someone in fear of death or physical injury. 

To convict you of federal stalking, prosecutors must prove that you engaged in the course of conduct, meaning two or more acts that constitute stalking, rather than a single instance.  Simply put, stalking is a pattern of behavior, not a single incident of harassment.

What Are Some Examples of Stalking?

18 U.S.C. 2261A has a wide range of conduct that could be considered staking, such as the following: 

  • Behavior that intends to injure, harass, or intimidate someone.
  • Placing someone under surveillance.
  • Any course of conduct that causes someone to be in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or a family member.
  • Causing or attempting to cause substantial emotional distress to somebody or act in a manner that would be reasonably expected to do so.

The term “bodily injury” means an act that results in physical injury or sexual abuse. The term “course of conduct” refers to a pattern of conduct composed of two or more acts, evidencing continuity of purpose. To “harass” someone means to use repeated words, conduct, or actions that serve no legitimate purpose other than to annoy, alarm, or cause distress.

What Are Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 110A domestic violence and stalking has numerous federal laws related to Title 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 stalkers of children.
  • 18 U.S.C. 2262 – Interstate violation of 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.

What are the Penalties for Federal Stalking?

Violating U.S.C. 2261A is a federal felony and carries the following penalties if convicted:

  • Up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
  • If the victim is under 18, the maximum imprisonment for the offense is five years greater than the maximum term of imprisonment.
  • For repeat offenders, the maximum term of imprisonment after a prior domestic violence or stalking offense shall be twice the term otherwise provided under this law.
  • The court may order restitution for any offense under this law in addition to any other civil or criminal penalty.

What Are the Defenses?

Several defense strategies might be available to a federal criminal defense lawyer when charged with federal stalking, depending on the circumstances of your case, such as the following:

  • Lack of intent,
  • Free speech rights,
  • No harassment.

Maybe we can argue there was a lack of intent. To be convicted, the prosecutor must show that that you intended to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place someone in fear. Without proving intent, you cannot be guilty of the crime. 

Federal Stalking Defenses

Perhaps your repeated phone calls and texts were attempts to reach out, and you were not deliberately trying to annoy, harass, or frighten the person. 

We could argue that you have a First Amendment right to free speech, which protects your freedom of speech and expression, including comments you make online or in a text message. 

Perhaps your behavior does not rise to the level of harassment, meaning it did not serve the purpose of annoying or alarming the alleged victim. Perhaps we can negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a favorable plea agreement.

Contact our law firm for a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, California, and serves people throughout the United States on federal criminal matters.

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