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A person has made several verbal threats to me and has made…

A person has made several verbal threats to me and has made me scared, am I able to obtain a harassment protection order against them under Massachusetts law?

20 February 2019

Answer: Maybe, it depends mainly on the words used and the context in which they were conveyed.

It happens; a person, maybe a neighbor or a co-worker, is continuing to make verbal threats towards you and you have had enough.  You have heard about a harassment protection order, (or maybe incorrectly referred to as a restraining order that are for family members and romantic interests), and you want to obtain one.  Well, you could just go down to the court, fill out an affidavit, tell the judge your story, and go in blind like most people, but you should probably do some research beforehand.

The most commonly applicable part of the definition of harassment is:

three or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person committed with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property and that [did] in fact cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.

Mass. Gen. Laws c. 258E § 1.

One may count three acts that they believe fit the definition here and think they have satisfied the requirements to obtain an order, but like much in the law, there is more to it.  “Where speech is the conduct complained of, it must be either in the form of ‘fighting words’ or ‘true threats’ to satisfy the meaning of ‘civil harassment . . .’” P.W. v. J.K., 94 Mass. App. Ct. 1115 at 2 (entered Jan. 4, 2019), 2019 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 12.  When the court refers to “true threats” or “fighting words” those are words of art with constitutional meaning and significance.  Thus, to truly assess whether each threatening statement really counts as “harassment” under the statute takes significant legal research.

One requirement that is less difficult to ascertain that many people overlook is that the statements at issue must be directed at the petitioner/plaintiff.  C.E.R. v. P.C., 91 Mass. App. Ct. 124, 130, fn.12 (2017).  This means that simply overhearing someone make a threatening or harassing statement about the petitioner/plaintiff is not enough.  Id.  This in required by the language in the statute and also part of the definition of “fighting words” under constitutional law.  Mass. Gen. Laws c. 258E § 1; see State v. Dugan, 369 Mont. 39, 54 (2013) cert denied, 571 U.S. 581 (2013) (addressing someone as a swear word over telephone did not constitution “fighting words”).

You get one chance to present your case for a harassment protection order and they are serious business for a respondent/defendant.  In the event that you are facing a harassment protection order matter, please feel free to give this office a call.