In family law, after a relationship ends, caring can be creepy. But is creepy behavior stalking? One Florida man – a father’s former boyfriend when the father’s child was born – recently found out.
Gone for Good
Santiago had a long-distance relationship with the child’s father, Leon. The relationship took place at the same time the father’s child, M.L., was born through a surrogate. But Santiago and the father never resided together with the child. Their relationship ended after M.L. was about one and a half years old.
But Santiago was not gone for good. Leon sensed Santiago was following them like a phantom limb. Leon filed a petition on behalf of his child to stop Santiago from allegedly stalking the child. The father argued Santiago was engaging in some creepy obsessive behavior, including:
- getting a tattoo of M.L.’s name on his body;
- posting images of M.L. on Facebook and Instagram, representing that M.L. was his son;
- mailing him packages; (iv) emailing the father to express his love for M.L.;
- contacting the surrogate for info on them;
- appearing outside their home; and
- driving by a restaurant the father and child were eating at and making eye contact with them.
The trial court entered a final judgment preventing Santiago from having any contact with M.L. and from posting any images or comments about M.L. on all social media.
Florida Stalking Injunctions
I’ve written about family law injunctions before, especially when free speech is impacted. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech, such as posting on social media. That’s because speech can be enjoined under our domestic violence laws.
Domestic violence injunctions prohibiting free speech are subject to constitutional challenge because they put the government’s weight behind that prohibition: a judge orders it, and the police enforce it.
In Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize. It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.
Domestic violence can also include cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is harassment via electronic communications. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.
A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.
The appellate court held that Florida authorizes injunctions against stalking.
“Stalking” is when “[a] person . . . willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person.”
However, aside from finding that Santiago had engaged in “stalking-like” and “creepy” behavior, the trial court did not make any express findings with respect to any of the statutory elements for stalking.
For example, “follows” means to tail, shadow, or pursue someone. In Santiago’s case, the father established, at most, that Santiago had appeared outside the father and M.L.’s and ate at the same restaurants as the father and M.L., but Santiago was never asked to explain any of these occurrences. The court simply found Santiago’s conduct, was not an example of “following” and even if it was, it wasn’t willful and malicious.
Also, the child was “totally unaware” of Santiago’s conduct, there was no evidence that Santiago’s conduct had caused “substantial emotional distress” to the child so as to constitute “harassment.”
In the inverted world of stalking law, getting a tattoo of someone else’s child, emailing the father, mailing packages to that child, contacting the surrogate to gather intel, showing up uninvited outside the child’s home, showing up at the same restaurants at the same time, making eye contact with the child, and social media posts, didn’t amount to “harassing.”
The court found that Santiago’s online postings referenced the child, but didn’t constitute “cyberstalking” because Florida requires social media threats be directed to the individual — not by content, but by delivery.
Since social media posts are generally delivered to the world at large, Florida courts have interpreted a course of conduct directed at a specific person to exempt social media messages from qualifying as the type of conduct, and Santiago never delivered his social media posts to the child.
The court agreed Santiago’s conduct might have been “creepy”, but the to impose a permanent stalking injunction against Santiago, there must be evidence that Santiago “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly followed, harassed, or cyberstalked.”
The opinion is here.