GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A law that creates criminal penalties for people who bully online is being enforced for the first time in Kent County.
The law that criminalizes the threat or harassment of a person over social media went into effect in March and now nine months later, Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker has a case that he believes fits the charge.
But he doubts it will be nine months before the next time this law is used.
“Something you may say out loud across a parking lot, yell some sort of threat across a parking lot, most of the time that’s very hard for us to charge,” Becker said.
The law criminalizes posting a message or statement about a person in a public media forum that is meant to put someone in fear of harm or death and expresses an intent to commit violence against the person.
“That’s the most unique thing is that something you may say in person, something you may yell may not be criminal, but now you put it online and it is,” said Becker.
What separates cyberbullying from old fashioned smack talk comes down to intent.
“Is the intent to really put somebody in fear or is it blowing off steam or just kind of being a jerk, and that’s probably going to be a fact-by-fact case for every circumstance that we find,” Becker said.
Facing the 90-day misdemeanor is repeat criminal offender 49-year-old Richard Anthony Kenney of Comstock Park.
Police say that in November, Kenney posted a photo that he created of himself holding a bomb and sent it to a neighbor.
Police say the message is clearly directed at the neighbor and is intended to be threatening.
Kenney is already charged with setting off an explosion in a neighbor’s tree to get back at the neighbor in September.
He faces trial on the bomb case in February and is free on a $25,000 bond.
The law puts police and prosecutors in some uncharted territory and as the courts more narrowly defines the elements of the offense, it may be charged more often.
Also, as the public becomes aware that there are legal remedies, they may contact police more.
“I think people, to some extent, may kind of blow things off, but now if they are aware of this law, maybe there will be more calls to law enforcement to take care of these things,” Becker said.
While this case is a misdemeanor, repeated violations can lead to a felony charge that carries a penalty of five years in prison and if continued online harassment causes the death of a victim, 10 years in prison is the maximum penalty.