WATERTOWN — City police say they cannot take any action on a complaint this week by a Watertown couple that their son received a death threat in a text message from another teen, because state law no longer recognizes such threats as aggravated harassment.
Christopher A. and Jennifer L. Natali, 134 Smith St., said they were surprised when a city police officer told them Tuesday that no action could be taken in response to a death threat made June 25 by the teen to their 14-year-old son, Christopher A. The Natalis said the threat was made by the teen using the instant messaging smartphone app called Kik. Both teens will be in ninth grade at Watertown High School this fall.
Police may no longer pursue charges for such threats, based on a state Court of Appeals ruling May 13 that struck down the aggravated harassment statute. The court ruled that the part of the misdemeanor charge related to annoying or alarming comments was too vague. It ruled that only threats that pose an imminent, immediate danger constitute harassment.
Aggravated harassment pertained to situations in which threats were made by telephone, email, texting and any other electronic communication with the intent to annoy or alarm another person. The Court of Appeals case in which the charge was struck down, People v. Golb, involved an Internet campaign made by Raphaeal Golb, the son of University of Chicago scholar Norman Golb, to attack scholars who held opposing views on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
City Police Officer Peter C. Keck said he told Mr. Natali on Tuesday that no action could be taken in response to the alleged death threat, because it no longer constitutes harrassment under state law. Because no crime was committed, he could not file a complaint by the Natalis. He said he advised the Natalis to consider pursuing a civil lawsuit against the suspect’s family and to report the incident to the administration of Watertown High School.
“As far as what our legal obligations are, it’s nothing that the city of Watertown is involved in anymore,” Officer Keck said. “They didn’t like our response, but unfortunately it’s not something” we can do anything about.
He said that numerous similar cases have been recently dismissed by the department due to the change in harassment law. “It happens so much nowadays with cellphones, text messaging and Facebook stuff,” he said.
Mr. Natali, fearful that his son could be in danger, said he was shocked when Officer Keck informed him the department could not take action.
“They basically said that, unless he is on your street and on your property — unless he’s physically putting his hands on him — then there’s nothing we can do,” he said.
The city police received an email on May 13 from the Jefferson County district attorney’s office that the aggravated harrassment charge had been struck down in court, Watertown Police Detective Lt. Joseph R. Donoghue said.
“We were told essentially that it no longer is a constitutional charge,” he said. “The only way to enforce that would be if lawmakers got together to figure out how to make it a constitutional law, or renew it in some form.”
Suspects may still be charged by police with a violation for harassment, but the criteria for doing so is different from aggravated harassment, Detective Donoghue said. He said an overt, physical action that alarms or annoys another person is typically needed for police to charge a suspect with harassment.
“An overt action would be making a motion toward someone toward making a threat come true,” he said. “You have to have someone physically going after another person. If someone has made a threat and they come to your door and pound on it, then you might have a harrassment charge, but it would have to be investigated. When you’re doing it on text messaging and on the phone, there’s no overt action.”
Mrs. Natali said that a dispute between her son and the other teen began last week on the instant messaging app. Her son had recently broken up with his girlfriend, she said, and the subject was a source of antagonism.
“This other boy had caught wind of it,” she said, adding that she learned about the death threat from the mother of her son’s best friend on Tuesday. Her son, who had avoided talking about the incident, described what happened after he was questioned Tuesday, she said.
“It had just started as some boy stuff,” she said. “They were kind of both being tools, and then it progressed into this other boy threatening to beat him to death and then shoot him with a gun, and having other boys join in to kill him. He also let my son know that he would be protected because his grandfather is a city police officer, so nothing could happen to him.”
The Natalis said their son continued to receive threatening messages from the other teen until Sunday, when he decided to block him from sending messages on the app. On June 25, the teen urged Christopher to meet him at Thompson Park to fight, Mr. Natali said.
“This kid has been trying to get him to come out and fight, and my son has been trying to defuse the situation,” he said. “He told him to meet him out at the park to fight, and that he had a bunch of people that were going to watch, and he was going to videotape it and put it on Facebook for everyone to see.”
Mr. Natali said he doesn’t believe the threat made on his son’s life should be taken lightly by police.
“The way things have been lately, with all of the school shooting and everything else, who’s to take anything lightly anymore?” he said. “If his grandfather is a police officer, obviously this kid is going to have guns in the house. And for him to blatantly say his grandfather is a cop — that kind of puts you on edge. One, (the police) are probably not going to do anything if he’s related to this cop; and two, he likely has weapons in his house.”
He continued, “I think it’s absurd that they would change (a law) that could potentially help people in situations this. Clearly, this kid has access and a gun mentality. It’s scary that people close to him might have weapons.”
Detective Donoghue, who declined to comment directly about the Natalis’ complaint, said parents should exercise oversight over social media used by their children.
“If it’s Facebook stuff, I would take them off Facebook,” he said. “If you take them out of that element, then that’s one less area for them to be threatened by. I will say that in my career I have dealt with thousands of people that have made threats and never followed through with them.”
Jefferson County District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert was not available Wednesday for comment. Patricia L. Dziuba, senior assistant district attorney, did not respond to a call seeking comment.