TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Donald Norcross and Senator Nicholas Sacco to create the crime of cyber-harassment, which would close a loophole in state law that prevents the criminal prosecution of online harassment of minors by their peers and by adults, was approved today by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
“There have been cases of cyber-harassment across the country that have taken a tragic turn, and ended in the loss of life. We have to make sure that our state laws reflect the reality that children are being harassed and bullied every day on the Internet. That means making sure those who engage in this conduct can be held accountable under the law,” said Senator Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester). “This measure will close a loophole in state law that can prevent the criminal prosecution of perpetrators. It will also send a message that we are serious about cracking down on these crimes that have so often led to dire situations for young people.”
Senator Norcross worked with the Camden County-based group InternetSafeChild.com, an organization made up of former and current prosecutors working to improve internet safety for children, in crafting the legislation. The group highlighted the need for laws dealing specifically with cyber crimes that do not fit into the parameters of other established crimes. Currently, when a child is attacked on the Internet, parents will often try to file a criminal complaint against the attacker but are not successful because no appropriate crime for this activity exists.
According to InternetSafeChild.com, a similar loophole also existed in Missouri and was highlighted by a case in which a 49-year old woman posed as a teenage boy and used MySpace to harass a child. The New York Times reported that the woman sent first friendly and then menacing messages to Megan Meier, 13, who killed herself shortly after receiving a message in 2006 that said in part, “The world would be a better place without you.” The case made national news since Megan’s death involved the actions of an adult whose daughter’s friendship with Megan had soured. The woman was convicted by a federal jury in Los Angeles of three misdemeanor counts of computer fraud for having misrepresented herself on MySpace, the Times reported. The cyber-harassment crime created by the senators’ bill would encompass attacks on children by adults impersonating children to harass a minor, as well as “visible” adults and children cyber attacking minors.
“The incident that took place in Missouri was a terrible tragedy, made worse by the fact that the perpetrator could not be charged appropriately for her conduct,” said Senator Sacco (D-Hudson/Bergen). “We have to make sure that here in New Jersey, our children are protected by the law from online attacks. Creating the crime of cyber-harassment will ensure that those who participate in this activity are held accountable. It will also provide that any adult that poses as a child in an effort to torment a young person will be met with severe penalties.”
Under the bill (S-2469), a person will have committed a crime of cyber-harassment if, while online using any electronic device or using a social networking site and with the purpose to harass another, that person: 1) threatens to injure or harm a person or that person’s property; 2) knowingly sends or posts any lewd, indecent or obscene material to or about a person with the intent to emotionally harm a person or place a person in fear of physical or emotional harm; or 3) threatens to commit a crime against a person or his or her property. The bill would make cyber-harassment a fourth degree crime, which is punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. If the offender is over age 21 at the time of the offense and impersonates a minor for the purpose of cyber-harassing a minor, cyber-harassment would be a crime of the third degree, punishable by three to five years imprisonment, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.
If a minor under age 16 is adjudicated delinquent for cyber-harassment, under the bill the court could order as a condition of the sentence that the minor, accompanied by his or her parent or guardian, complete one or both of the following: 1) a class or training program intended to reduce the tendency toward cyber-harassment behavior; or 2) a class or training program intended to bring awareness to the dangers associated with cyber-harassment. Under the bill, if a parent or guardian fails to accompany his or her child to the class or training program, the parent or guardian would be guilty of a disorderly person’s offense and fined up to $25 for a first offense and up to $100 for each subsequent offense.
“Children have been terrorized by their peers, and in some cases by adults, through verbal attacks and humiliating photos posted on the Internet,” said Senator Norcross. “The only way we will put a stop to this behavior is by changing the online culture. Ensuring that we have a strong law on the books to explicitly outlaw online assaults and severe penalties for violations is a major step forward in that effort.”
“An increasing number of students are reporting having been the victim of online harassment, and in too many cases the torment these children have been forced to endure have led to suicide attempts or worse,” said Senator Sacco. “This bill will make sure that our laws specifically address this conduct and that law enforcement officials have the tools necessary to prosecute individuals who participate in cyber-harassment. Hopefully, this will make children, as well as adults, think twice about their online behavior.”
It next heads to the full Senate for consideration.