Stalking and Criminal Mind State (Part 1)

by | Sep 17, 2023 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On June 27, 2023, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Counterman v. Colorado. The principal issue that relates to New Jersey’s stalking statue (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10) concerned what criminal mind state is required for a stalking conviction.

Justice Kagan wrote for the 5-justice majority in relevant part: From 2014 to 2016, petitioner Billy Counterman sent hundreds of Facebook messages to C. W., a local singer and musician. The two had never met, and C. W. did not respond. In fact, she tried repeatedly to block him, but each time, Counterman created a new Facebook account and resumed contacting C. W. Several of his messages envisaged violent harm befalling her. Counterman’s messages put C. W. in fear and upended her daily existence: C. W. stopped walking alone, declined social engagements, and canceled some of her performances. C. W. eventually contacted the authorities.

The State charged Counterman under a Colorado statute making it unlawful to “repeatedly . . . make any form of communication with another person” in “a manner that would cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress and does cause that person . . . to suffer serious emotional distress.” Colo. Rev. Stat. §18–3–602(1)(c). Counterman moved to dismiss the charge on First Amendment grounds, arguing that his messages were not “true threats” and therefore could not form the basis of a criminal prosecution. Following Colorado law, the trial court rejected that argument under an objective standard, finding that a reasonable person would consider the messages threatening. Counterman appealed, arguing that the First Amendment required the State to show not only that his statements were objectively threatening, but also that he was aware of their threatening character. The Colorado Court of Appeals disagreed and affirmed his conviction. The Colorado Supreme Court denied review.

Before this case, New Jersey Courts interpreted our stalking statute the same way. The old interpretation made it easier to prove a case for indictable stalking then for a less serious, non-indictable harassment charge. This was because our courts did not require proof of a defendant’s subjective criminal intent.