Technology misuse can often be dealt with in both civil court and criminal court. The process and purpose for using each court is different and you may accomplish different outcomes depending on which court you are in.
What are the basic differences in criminal and civil court cases?
In criminal court, the case is filed by the state or county prosecutor and the purpose is to punish the abuser for breaking the law, which may result in jail time. In civil cases, the case is filed by you (the victim) or your attorney and the purpose is usually to have the abuser pay you for damages that his/her behavior caused you. In civil cases, you are not asking the judge to send the abuser to jail for his/her behavior (even though the abuser’s behavior may be a crime in your state). In some situations, there may be both civil and criminal cases happening at the same time or close in time based on the abusive behavior. For example, in 2008, Erin Andrews, a sportscaster on ESPN, was stalked by a man who filmed her in her hotel room through a peephole. A year later, the stalker was convicted of stalking in criminal court and sentenced to over 2 years in jail. Five years later, Erin Andrews successfully sued the stalker (in addition to the hotel and others) in civil court for money damages based on negligence, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. It may not always be clear what legal options are available to you and so it’s important to consult with an attorney who is knowledgeable about the laws surrounding technology misuse.
What can I accomplish through civil court?
One way to address the misuse of technology can be through the civil court system. To file a lawsuit in civil court, you can use an attorney or file on your own. You (the victim) can sue for money damages for things like lost wages, loss of your job, emotional pain and suffering, damage to yours reputation, and even punitive damages (to punish the defendant). If your damages are below a certain amount, you may be able to file on your own in small claims court. In some states, if you were the victim of the crime of disclosure of intimate images, the law may allow you to sue the person who discloses or uses the image for damages that increase each day the abuser is in violation of the law. You can learn more about the option of suing an abuser in civil court by reading our Suing an Abuser page and selecting your state from the drop-down menu. You can also ask the court to issue an order (often called an injunction or a restraining order) in which the judge orders the defendant to stop doing certain things (like sending images of you to others) or to force him/her to do certain actions (such as destroying or turning over images). Restraining orders may be a legal remedy for victims experiencing various types of abuse involving technology (and not only for nonconsensual image sharing cases) depending on your state's legal definition of domestic violence.
There also may be other important civil legal options to consider in technology-related abuse cases, especially those that deal with the sharing of images of you without your consent. One possible option, for example, deals with turning over the copyright of images to you. Generally, copyright law may protect certain photos or videos taken as an “original work,” and the person who takes a photograph or video is generally the copyright “owner.” The owner of the copyright can decide if, how, and when those images are distributed, published online, etc. However, in a civil lawsuit, it may be possible for you to request – and for a judge to order -- that the defendant sign over any copyright ownership of the images to you (the victim). Therefore, if you are the copyright owner, you would have the legal power to decide where the pictures are published and you may be able to demand that the pictures be removed from the Internet or other publications. For advice on whether or not you may have a valid legal claim to get the copyright of any images taken of you, please consult with a lawyer who is knowledgeable about copyright law and technology misuse. See our National Organizations - Posting Nude/Sexual Images Without Consent/"Revenge Porn" section for legal referrals.
What can I accomplish through criminal court?
Another way to address technology misuse is through the criminal court system. In the criminal law system, cases are filed by the state prosecutor (also called the district attorney or attorney general in some states) based on violations of state criminal law. (Or if a federal law is violated, the federal prosecutor would be the one to file the case.) Generally, when you call 911 or go to the police department to file a criminal complaint, the police will do an investigation and if there is “probable cause” to make an arrest and sufficient evidence to prosecute, the abuser may be charged with a crime. To see a list of some common crimes in your state, especially those that involve technology misuse, go to our Crimes page and enter your state in the drop-down menu.
One important difference between a civil and criminal case is that in a criminal case, the prosecutor is the one who decides whether or not to file the criminal case against the abuser and whether or not to withdraw the criminal charges. Once a criminal case has been filed, if you later decide that you do not want the case to continue (you want to “drop the charges”), the prosecutor does not have to drop the case (since the prosecutor is not “your attorney”). It is up to the prosecutor whether to continue the case or not. You do not necessarily have the same ability to start or dismiss a case in criminal court the way you may be able to in civil court.
How can I stay safe if I am the victim of technology abuse?
Nothing is more important than your safety and your well-being. If you are being abused or stalked by someone who is misusing technology, it will be important to think through ways to increase your safety and privacy that take that technology into consideration. Since technology is constantly changing and the application of laws in this area are still developing, there could be situations where the current law may not address exactly what is happening. However, most acts of misusing technology for the purposes of harassment, stalking, and abuse are illegal.
Even if you are unable to or choose not to seek protection, damages, or other forms of justice in civil or criminal court, you can still make a plan for your safety and get help to deal with the emotional trauma that you may experience. See our Safety Planning page for more information on ways to increase your safety. You can contact your local domestic violence organization for additional help creating a safety plan or for other assistance. You can also find general safety planning tips and suggestions related to technology on the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net project’s Technology Safety page.
What resources are available for advocates or survivors?
There may be some helpful resources available to you if you want to learn more about technology misuse and increasing your privacy and safety online:
- National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net project - Technology Safety & Privacy toolkit for survivors
- Stalking Resource Center – Help for Victims
- Cyber Civil Rights Initiative – End Revenge Porn Crisis Line
- Electronic Frontier Foundation - Surveillance Self-Defense toolkit
- Love Is Respect Teen Dating Helpline.