Domestic violence crimes are not limited to physical acts of violence, but also include stalking, cyberstalking, and harassment over the telephone. While a wide array of behavior may give rise to a domestic violence offense, a common element of domestic violence crimes is harm, whether it is actual harm or an actual or perceived threat of harm. Thus, if during a trial for a domestic violence crime, the jury is not properly instructed regarding the elements of the crime, it may violate the defendant’s Constitutional rights. This was discussed in a recent Washington appellate court opinion in which the court reversed the defendant’s convictions for cyberstalking and telephone harassment due to improper jury instructions. If you are faced with accusations that you committed a domestic violence offense, it is in your best interest to consult a skillful Washington domestic violence defense attorney to discuss your case.
Allegedly, the defendant sent a series of texts to the victim, who was his ex-girlfriend that lived in another part of the State, asking her if she wanted to engage in sexual conduct with him and his friends, calling her demeaning terms, and threatening to follow her. Later that day, he broke into the victim’s home and set two fires. He was arrested and charged with multiple domestic violence crimes, including telephone harassment and cyberstalking. Following a jury trial, he was convicted. He appealed, arguing in part that the trial court violated his First Amendment rights by failing to instruct the jury on the definition of a “true threat.” The appellate court agreed and reversed and remanded his convictions for cyberstalking and telephone harassment.
The Definition of a True Threat for Cyberstalking and Telephone Harassment Charges
On appeal, the State conceded that the jury was not instructed on the definition of a true threat for the crimes of cyberstalking and telephone harassment, but argued that a true threat was not an essential component of those crimes. Conversely, the defendant argued that the failure to provide the jury with such instructions allowed the jury to convict him based on protected speech. The appellate court agreed with the defendant. Specifically, the court stated that the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws that inhibit a person’s right to free speech. Further, the court explained that while the protections provided by the First Amendment were broad, they did not extend to unprotected speech, such as speech deemed a true threat.