Have you been served with a Petition for Injunction for Protection against Stalking, sometimes referred to as a “restraining order”? If so, you nonetheless may be able to avoid entry of a final injunction and the associated collateral consequences, stress and stigma.
Florida State section 784.0485 provides for an injunction for protection against stalking. Stalking is defined as when a person “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person.” To “harass” means “to engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person which causes substantial emotional distress to that person and serves no legitimate purpose.” A “course of conduct”, in turn, is a “pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, which evidences a continuity of purpose.” In determining whether an incident causes “substantial emotional distress,” courts use a “reasonable person” standard, and not a subjective one.
A July 11, 2018 opinion from the First District Court of Appeal in Paulson v. Rankart illustrates how a party subject to a temporary stalking injunction may avoid it becoming permanent. There, Mr. Paulson and Ms. Rankin were neighbors. Ms. Rankin filed a petition alleging Mr. Paulson was stalking her by complaining to code enforcement and animal control about her outdoor lights and barking dogs keeping him awake at night. She also alleged Paulson was watching her sunbathe on her deck from his property and was examining utility meters on her street. Rankart further alleged she was afraid Paulson might get angry and drunk and shoot her dogs. She claimed to suffer from anxiety and depression, which she said was exacerbated by Paulson’s alleged conduct.
The trial court concluded Paulson’s calls and reports to authorities were insufficient as a matter of law to support entry of a staking injunction. However, the court found Rankart’s undisputed testimony concerning Paulson looking at her utility meters and watching her sunbathe was sufficient to warrant issuance of an injunction. Mr. Paulson appealed.
Initially, the First District Court of Appeal agreed Mr. Paulson’s calls and reports to the city about Rankart’s lights and dogs did not constitute harassment as a matter of law. Regarding Paulson allegedly looking at Ranking’s utility meter, the court found no evidence he was on her property when he did so or that he was focused on her meter alone. In other words, the court found no evidence Paulson willfully and maliciously engaged in conduct directed at Rankart. Additionally, the court found a reasonable person would not suffer substantial emotional distress from such acts.
Similarly, regarding Mr. Paulson’s viewing Mr. Rankart sunbathing, the court found there was no evidence he made any statements or gestures towards her on those occasions, or that he trespassed onto her property while doing so. Without more, the court concluded the evidence was insufficient to show Paulson willfully and maliciously engaged in a course of conduct that would cause her substantial emotional distress.
In conclusion, the appellate court noted while Rankart was clearly exasperated by Paulson’s dog and noise complaints, and his watching her sunbathe and looking at the utility meters made her feel uncomfortable, a stalking injunction “is not designed to keep the peace between parties who, for whatever reason, are unable to get along and behave civilly towards each other.” It then reversed and remanded the case for the trial court to vacate the injunction. Similarly, if the petition for protection against stalking filed against you doesn’t meet certain exacting legal requirements, an experienced attorney may be able to get the matter dismissed.
Stalking and other types of injunctions are serious civil matters that can adversely affect your life. If you’ve been served with an injunction for protection against domestic violence, dating violence, repeat violence, sexual violence or stalking it’s important to contact a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer knowledgeable about injunctions and ways to avoid them. Doing so will give you the best chance of avoiding the stress, stigma, inconvenience and possible more serious collateral consequences of having an injunction entered against you. Call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can help you with your injunction or restraining order matter in Duval, Clay, Nassau or St. Johns Counties.