Earlier this year I had a case in which my Client was accused of sending harassing text messages to her Spouse’s Ex. The allegation was not that the text messages were threatening, only repetitive, mean spirited, and unwanted. The Georgia law which governs “harassing phone calls” was citied on the application for arrest warrant because Georgia has not passed any laws specifically prohibiting harassing text messages. I was able to use the distinction between a text message and telephone call to have the charges against my client dropped.
The Georgia harassing phone calls statute makes it a misdemeanor for any person to: “telephone another person” repeatedly, to annoy, harass, or molest the person or their family. The current law also prohibits threatening bodily harm over the telephone.
While the harassing phone call statute may seemingly criminalize my client’s behavior it is important to note that in Georgia a criminal law must be given a strict interpretation. In other words, if the wording of a criminal law creates more than one meaning, the meaning most favorable to the Defendant applies. The Georgia Supreme Court explained this principal by declaring that if the wording of a criminal law creates more than one “reasonable” meaning, “one which would render an act criminal, the other which would not” – the act is not criminal. State v. Crane.
The problem with the harassing phone call statute is with the word “telephoning.” If given its normal meaning, “telephoning” is not the same thing as “texting.” You can send a text message from a computer, ipod, or a device intended only to allow text messages, and it is impossible to send a text message from a rotary phone or landline. If you look up “telephone” in the Merriam-Websters dictionary for English learners, which explains a word in its most basic meaning, it defines the word as: “to speak or try to speak to someone using a telephone” or “to call or phone.” Merriam-Websters’ thesaurus defines “telephone” as “to make a telephone call” and lists the synonyms “dial, phone, and ring up (British).’’
I successfully argued that “telephoning” was not “texting” and this distinction resulted in my client having all charges dropped against her. Should Georgia criminalize harassing text messages? That’s up to the legislature; for now, I don’t believe they have.