Criminal harassment should not be confused with how “harassment” is often used in contexts such as workplace discrimination. Federal and state laws ban discrimination against certain types of people in certain situations, such as at work or in housing decisions. In these non-criminal contexts, the victim can sue the harasser in a private civil lawsuit, alleging that the harassment constitutes discrimination.
Generally, criminal harassment entails intentionally targeting someone with behavior that is meant to alarm, annoy, torment, or terrorize. Most state laws require that the behavior cause a credible threat to the person’s safety or their family’s safety.
Harassment charges can range from misdemeanor to high-level felony charges. In many states, people charged with harassment will receive a higher level charge if they have previously been convicted of harassment, communicating a threat, or a domestic violence offense. Harassment by someone in violation of a restraining order may also draw a higher-level charge. Some states elevate the charge if the harassment targeted someone based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability, or sexual orientation.