On March 27th, 2019, Public Act 457 of 2018 became an effective law and created criminal penalties for "cyberbullying" others on the internet. The Michigan Legislature specifically outlawed threatening conduct online in hopes of protecting teenagers and adolescents suspectible to this harassment. In some cases, young people have been bullied on social media to the point they felt suicide was the only way to escape this harm. You can be sure that prosecutors will take these kinds of charges seriously. Anyone found guilty of cyberbullying is facing the risk of fines, probation and even incarceration.
"Cyberbullying" includes "posting a message or statement in a public media forum about any other person if BOTH of the following apply:"
- "The message or statement is intended to place a person in fear of bodily harm or death and expresses an intent to commit violence against the person." MCL 750.411x(6)(a)(i).
- "The message or statement is posted with the intent to communicate a threat or with knowledge that it will be viewed as a threat." MCL 750.411x(6)(a)(ii).
"Public media forum" means "the internet or any other medium designed or intended to be used to convey information to other individuals, regardless of whether a membership or password is required to view the information." MCL 750.411x(6)(c). This definition includes messages and statements on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google reviews and even in comment sections on YouTube or Twitch.
If the prosecutor can prove that an individual engaged in cyberbullying beyond a reasonable doubt, then the penalties are as follows:
- A person who cyberbullies is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 93 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both. MCL 750.411x(3).
- A person who cyberbullies in a manner that involves a series of two or more separate noncontinuous acts of harassing or intimidating behavior AND by that violation causes serious injury (e.g. permanent, serious disfigurement, serious impairment of health, or serious impairment of a bodily function of a person) to the victim is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 5 years or a fine of not more than $5,000.00, or both. MCL 750.411x(4).
- A person who cyberbullies in a manner that involves a series of two or more separate noncontinuous acts of harassing or intimidating behavior AND by that violation causes the death of the victim is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of not more than $10,000.00, or both. MCL 750.411x(5).
Messages and statements posted on the internet are very difficult to remove, even if the author believes that he or she had deleted them. The evidence to convict may be readily available online for any member of law enforcement to collect and submit to the prosecuting attorney. Everyone should think twice and take care as to what they post on the internet as it may remain there forever.
As this is a new criminal statute, it is completely untested in the appellate courts and will be subject to future interpretations by judges. Since the prosecutor has the burden of proof to show that the defendant committed cyberbullying, the following defenses may be available to the accused:
- False Identification: The internet allows the freedom for people to post messages or videos anonymously or even under the identity of someone else. The prosecutor must show that the accused was the source of the messages beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Lack of Intent: The message or statement posted must be intended to place a person in fear of bodily harm or death. The prosecutor has to show that the accused intended to place a person in fear, or knew the person would be placed in fear, beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Proximate Cause of Serious Harm or Death: The prosecutor has to show that there is a correlation between the cyberbullying message and the resulting serious harm or death. For example, an intentional suicide immediately after the message was posted may have a significant relationship to the defendant's conduct. However, an accidental and random death from a automobile collision after the message was posted would usually not be considered the result of cyberbullying.
Anyone who is facing this serious offense needs a skilled attorney in their corner to protect their rights. If you or a loved one is accused of cyberbullying or any other crime, do not hesitate to contact the criminal defense attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for your best defense today.