Guide to Laws about Harassment in California
If someone is seriously harassing or threatening to harm you, call 9-1-1. Also see our Victims Rights guide for more.
1. General Harassment and Threats
Is it illegal to threaten someone?
In California it is a crime to make a threat or threaten to kill or injure a person, where the perpetrator intends it to be taken seriously (even if he/she does not intend to actually carry out the threat). This applies whether the threat is made in person, in writing, online, by text, or otherwise. Punishment is up to 1 year in jail.1CA Penal Code Sec 422
But keep in mind that “threats” that are intended as “expression” are considered free speech protected under the 1st amendment. See our Guide to Free Speech.
Is it illegal to harass someone in California?
Whether someone is committing illegal “harassment” depends on the context. If it involves a “true threat” of harm (see above), or stalking (see below), it is likely illegal.
If it is against a close family member, it may be considered “domestic violence” (see below) or if a neighbor, roommate, friend, or non immediate family member, it may be considered “civil harassment,” (see below).
What is domestic violence in California?
- married or registered domestic partners
- divorced or separated
- dating or used to date OR
- closely related (parent, child, sister, brother, grandmother, grandfather, in-law)
“Abuse” is defined as any of the following:
- intentionally or recklessly physically hurting or attempting to hurt someone
- sexual assault
- threats to harm the person or someone close to the person
- disturbing someone’s peace or destroying their property
See more at Courts.CA.gov
What is “civil harassment”?
In California, civil harassment is defined as any abuse or serious threats of abuse against a friend (that you never dated), neighbor, or family member not listed above in “domestic violence.”3Code of Civil Procedure section 527.6
See more at Courts.CA.gov
2. Harassment and Bullying at Work
What are my rights against harassment at work?
Under California law, you have the right to protection against harassment or bullying by your employer if the harassment is based on: race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, or sexual orientation.4CA Govt Code Sec. 12940(j)(1), (3)
What if a coworker is harassing me?
If a coworker is doing things listed under “civil harassment” (above), you may be able to get a “workplace violence restraining order” against the coworker.6California Code of Civil Procedure Sec 527.8
See more at Courts.CA.gov
3. Bullying in School
What are my rights against bullying or harassment in school?
You have the right to protection against bullying in school. School officials even have the authority to discipline cyber bullies, whether the bullying takes place on campus or off campus.7Cal. Education Code Sec. 48900
What is legal or illegal in terms of harassing others in public or on the street?
All of the following are crimes punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 6 months in jail (though in some cases it could be considered a more serious crime with more severe punishment):
- Engaging in “lewd conduct” in public, which includes making explicit sexual comments or obscene or sexual gestures.8Cal Penal Code Sec 647(a)
- Indecent exposure: when someone exposes his/her genitals to another person in public.9Cal Penal Code 314
- Intentionally blocking the free movement of another person on a street, sidewalk or other public place.10Cal Penal Code 647c
- Physically groping someone or touching them in a sexually inappropriate way; it is a crime called “sexual battery.”11Cal Penal Code 234.4(e); you can also sue someone for it, Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.5
- If 2 or more people gather together to harass others,12or for any unlawful purpose or for a lawful purpose in a violent or boisterous way it is a crime called “unlawful assembly.”13Cal Penal Code Sec 407
5. Harassment on Public Transportation
Is it illegal to harass people on the bus or train?
- Disturbing another person by making loud or unreasonable noise
- Intentionally disturbing others on a bus/train or platform by engaging in boisterous or unruly behavior
- Intentionally blocking the free movement of another person
- Spitting on a bus/train or platform
6. Stalking or Cyberstalking
Is stalking illegal?
Stalking is illegal, and is defined by California law as repeatedly (at least twice) following or harassing someone and making a threat intending to place another in fear for his/her safety or the safety of his/her immediate family. 15Or more specifically, it is illegal to “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follow or willfully and maliciously harass another person and make a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family.” California law further defines harassment in this context as when someone “engages in a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, torments, or terrorizes the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose.” Cal Penal Code 646.9 It is punishable by jail for up to 1 year, and you may also be able to sue a stalker.16Cal Civil Code 1708.7
You have the right to protection against stalking and cyberstalking that makes you fear for your life or health. The police have an obligation to investigate any such stalking, and if they find a credible threat, to prosecute the offender. (Unfortunately, if the offender lives outside the U.S., there is little law enforcement can do at this time).1718 U.S. Code § 2261A
7. Harassment Based on Identity aka “Hate Crimes”
What is a hate crime?
If someone uses force against you (or threatens to and appears to be able to carry out the threat) to deny you any of your rights, such as freedom of movement, because of one of the characteristics below, it is a hate crime. (Note: The hate crime is in addition to the underlying crime, for example it is a crime to block someone’s freedom of movement in public regardless of any characteristic that victim may have.) Hate crimes are punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and/or up to 1 year in jail, and a minimum amount of community service.18Cal Penal Code Sec 422.6
Identities/characteristics which qualify for hate crimes: gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability. Hate crimes can also be based on even a perception that a victim has one of these characteristics, even when he/she doesn’t, or an association with someone who has one of these actual or perceived characteristics.
8. Harassment by police officers
Is it illegal for police to harass or “rough up” people?
Generally police must have justification for any use of force. See more at our Guide to Police Conduct.
Is it illegal for police officers to have sex with someone in their custody?
In California it is illegal for law enforcement to have sex with a person they have arrested or detained, even if consensual.
But many other states do NOT have this law. See the Feb 2018 Buzzfeed story on this.
EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS
In general, if you feel your safety or the safety of others is being immediately threatened, call 911. Otherwise, you can do the following:
- If you are a victim of stalking or cyberstalking, you can report it to your local police or to the Department of Justice. Or you can talk to a personal injury lawyer (even if you have not been physically harmed).
- If you are a victim of harassment at work, you can file a claim with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or talk to a lawyer about it. It may also be a crime, and if so, you can report it to law enforcement.
- If a crime occurred in the city of LA, whether you were the victim or not, you can report it anonymously by
- texting to 274637 and begin your message with the letters LAPD
- calling 800-222-8477 any time, 24/7
- Make sure you know your Victims’ Bill of Rights