Recently, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas at Dallas issued an important decision holding the state’s stalking statute unconstitutional. While lawmakers are responsible for writing and passing laws, courts must interpret the laws as they are written. However, courts are also the final arbiter in determining whether a law is constitutional. While most laws pass constitutional muster, some do not, as evidenced by the court’s recent decision.
The Facts of the Case
The defendant in the case was arrested and charged with felony stalking for conduct taking place between January 1, 2007, and April 24, 2018. More specifically, the complaint alleged that the defendant engaged in conduct that caused the complaining witness “to feel harassed, annoyed, alarmed, abused, tormented, embarrassed, or offended” and “would cause a reasonable person to feel harassed, annoyed, alarmed, abused, tormented, embarrassed, or offended.” Evidently, the defendant posted comments on social media and made other public statements that the complaining witness considered threatening.
At the time, the Texas stalking statute made it a crime to commit more than one act of “electronic-communications harassment” under § 42.07. That statute provides that a person repeatedly sends “electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another.” Thus, the stalking statute directly references the harassment statute, making it a stalking offense to engage in a continued course of harassment.
The defendant was convicted of stalking and appealed. On appeal, he raised several issues. Most importantly, he argued that the stalking statute was “unconstitutionally overbroad and vague on its face” because it leaves the electronic-communications subsection open to various “uncertainties of meaning.”
The Court’s Analysis
The court began its analysis by noting that appellate courts across Texas have come to different conclusions about the constitutionality of the stalking statute. Those appellate courts that found the statute constitutional found that electronic communications constituting harassing conduct fall outside the protections of the First Amendment. On the other hand, those appellate courts that found the statute unconstitutional found that the term “electronic communication” is incredibly broad and enforcing the law as written would infringe upon citizens’ First Amendment.
The Dallas appellate court agreed with those appellate courts that previously found the statute unconstitutional. The court relied on a previous case, State v. Chen, which drew a distinction between speech directed at a “captive audience” such as a telephone call versus those that require some “affirmative actions by the user to access the content at issue” – such as some forms of electronic communications.
As a result of the court’s opinion, the defendant’s conviction was reversed and the case was remanded to the trial court so that the court could dismiss the case altogether.
Are You Facing Criminal Charges?
If you have recently been charged with stalking, harassment, or any other felony or misdemeanor crime, having a skilled Dallas criminal defense attorney in your corner can make the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal. At Guest & Gray, our criminal defense attorneys have extensive, hands-on experience litigating some of the most complex and high-stakes criminal cases. We take pride in providing each of our clients with individualized attention to ensure that their voice is heard. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation, give Guest & Gray a call at 972-564-4644 today. You can also reach us through our online contact form.