How Sexual Harassment in the Workplace can Lead to Criminal Charges

January 27, 2023 Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes

No one should have to deal with sexual harassment in their place of work—or any place, for that matter. However, with the #MeToo movement, it’s clear that it is more common than many had expected. Sexual harassment typically leads to punishment within the person’s job—whether that be getting transferred, suspended, or fired. However, in more severe instances, sexual harassment can lead to criminal charges. 

This article will define sexual harassment and a recent example case from a Florida sheriff’s office, along with relative charges that can occur from allegations of sexual assault.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is typically referred to as any sexual misconduct that takes place in a work environment. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment can include inappropriate comments, requests for sexual favors, sexual advances, and other forms of harassment of a sexual nature.

Most of the time, simple teasing or isolated incidents do not result in claims of harassment—however, when they are given a sexual pretense it is much more likely to result in consequences from the workplace, and potentially the law.

Common examples of sexual harassment circumstances include the following:

  • The victim’s supervisor, agent of the employer, co-worker, or non-employee has harassed another person in the workplace in a sexual manner;
  • The victim can be the person harassed or anyone else who witnessed and was affected by the incident;
  • The alleged harasser has acted in a sexual manner that made others in the environment unwelcome.

Example Case

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has fired one of their deputies after allegations of sexual harassment against another officer. According to the report, Deputy Timothy Lafave, 48, had started sexually harassing a young co-worker who was new to the agency. During her training period, the victim noticed Lafave remaining close to her and had “a fond[ness] for staring” at her.

Other members from the agency noticed the staring as well, along with him acting “creepy” and “weird” in conversations with coworkers. During the fall of 2022, Lafave approached the woman from behind and massaged her shoulders without her consent. He then hugged her, in which she made an effort to lean away. The woman later reported that Lafave called her “babe.”

Another deputy witnessed the interaction and reported it to the supervisors, who opened an internal affairs investigation. Footage from several of the alleged “uncomfortable” incidents was captured on courthouse surveillance camera. When questioned about the sexual harassment, Lafave admitted to giving unwanted hugs and massaging the other officer.

“She was new, I’m just trying to get a feel for her as a person, as a coworker,” Lafave said. He also claimed to be acting from a “fatherly standpoint” to make her feel welcome.

“Deputy Lafave’s attempted justification during the investigation interviews were lies in an effort to mitigate his misconduct,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

During the final interview with Lafave, he admitted that his behavior was inappropriate and unprofessional. He has since been fired from the agency, but no criminal charges have been filed.

Although this example case did not result in criminal charges, it brings up the question—what types sexual harassment can lead to criminal charges in Florida?  

When Sexual Harassment Becomes a Criminal Offense

While sexual harassment is not necessarily a crime, there are specific acts—depending on the nature of the offender’s conduct—which could result in criminal charges. In cases of sexual harassment in the workplace, the accused person is typically fired or removed from the environment in which the victim is working. However, in more extreme cases the victim can press criminal charges.

Some common criminal charges that can arise from sexual harassment allegations are as follows:

Stalking in Florida

In some cases, sexual harassment can lead to more serious offenses such as stalking. In TV and movies, stalking is typically depicted as someone secretly following another person. While this is true, there are other forms of stalking as well, such as cyberstalking. In Florida, a person can be charged for stalking or aggravated stalking.

According to Florida Statute Section 784.048, to “harass” someone means to engage in a course of conduct that is directed towards a specific person and causes substantial emotional distress to that person, and serves no legitimate purpose.

“Course of conduct” is defined as the pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts of a period of time, however short, which evidences to a continuity of purpose. In order for a person to make a “credible threat,” it implies either a verbal or nonverbal threat which places the targeted person in reasonable fear for their life, or the life of their family or friends.

These threats can also be made via electronic communication. To prove someone has made a credible threat to someone, it is not necessary to prove that the accused person had the intent to actually carry out the threat.

A person may be accused of “cyberstalking” if they have engaged in a course of communication, directly or indirectly, words, images, or language by electronic mail or communication is directed at a specific person.

Any person who is accused of willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking. A person accused of stalking can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor. A first-degree misdemeanor has penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

A stalking charge can be enhanced to an aggravated stalking charge if they have committed all of the characteristics listed above, along with making a credible threat to the victim. A person accused of aggravated stalking can be charged with a third-degree felony in Florida. A third-degree felony has a penalty of up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

Sexual Cyberharassment

With the advancement in technology and electronic devices, individuals are likely to communicate via electronic messaging or over social media. In the event that a person sends explicit images or videos to another person, it is likely that they are under the impression that it will remain private. However, it is becoming a more common practice to publish or share someone’s private images or videos without their consent.

Under Florida Statute Section 784.049, a person can be accused of sexually cyberharassing someone by publishing to an internet website or disseminating through electronic means to another person a sexually explicit image or video that contains or conveys the personal identification information of the depicted person without their consent, and which causes severe emotional distress to the victim.

 Any person who willfully and maliciously sexually cyberharasses another person can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor. The penalties for a first-degree misdemeanor include up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. For a second or subsequent sexual cyberharassment allegation, the person can be charged with a third-degree felony. The penalties for a third-degree felony include up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

Important: A law enforcement officer has the right to arrest any person that they have probable cause to believe they have committed sexual cyberharassment—even without obtaining a warrant.

Indecent Exposure

If a person gets naked or displays their sexual organs in front of someone else without their consent, they may be charged with indecent exposure. Florida Statute Section 800.03 explains that a person has committed indecent exposure by:

  • Exposing or exhibiting his or her sexual organs in public or on the private premises of another, or so near as to be seen from such private premises, in a vulgar or indecent manner; or
  • Being naked in public in a vulgar or indecent manner.

For a first-time offense, indecent exposure can result in a first-degree misdemeanor charge. A first-degree misdemeanor has penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. If the person is accused of a second or subsequent offense, the charge can be enhanced to a third-degree felony. A third-degree felony has a penalty of up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

Important: indecent exposure does not include a mother breastfeeding her child, or an individual who is naked at a place that is designated for that purpose.

Sexual Battery in Florida

If sexual harassment turns into a physical assault, it is likely that the alleged offender may be charged with sexual battery. This is one of the harshest sex crime charges in Florida, which can result in extremely serious consequences.

When a person is accused of rape, the term for the criminal charge in Florida is sexual battery. Sexual battery is defined under Florida Statute Section 794.011

 as the union or penetration of the female genitals, oral, or anal by another person or object. The law specifies that consent does not include any submission by coercion, force, or the failure to physically resist the offender’s advances.

Any person 18 or older who commits sexual battery on a person 18 years or older without their consent and in the process did not use physical force and violence likely to cause serious  injury can be charged with a second-degree felony in Florida. A first-degree felony has penalties of up to a $10,000 fine and up to 15years in prison.

Additional Consequences

In addition to paying a fine and potentially serving a prison sentence, a person convicted of a sex crime may face additional charges. In Florida, those convicted of sex crimes are likely required to register as a sex offender. The Florida Sex Offender Registry from the FDLE requires convicted sex offenders to register for life.

Registered sex offenders may lose their job, their house, or the ability to work with children. Sex offenders are prohibited from living near schools or other locations where children are commonly present. Convicted sex offenders with their own children may lose their right to see them. Certain websites allow individuals to see if any sex offenders live near them—which could cause additional strain or even harassment.

In the event that sexual harassment leads to a convicted sex crime, the stakes are entirely too high. There are life-altering consequences that come with a criminal conviction, which is why it is imperative to speak with a legal representative as soon as possible.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Sexual harassment in the workplace does not necessarily equate to being charged with a crime. However, if there are certain elements of physical abuse, stalking, or battery, the accused person may find themselves facing criminal charges. As previously mentioned, these charges can lead to expensive fines, imprisonment, and the possibility of a life-long registry under the Florida Sex Offender Registry.

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime in Florida, contact Don Pumphrey and his team today. Our attorneys have years of experience working with clients on a variety of criminal cases. We promise to stand by your side throughout the entire process, and build a strong defense to work towards your freedom. Call Pumphrey Law Firm today at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message to receive a free consultation regarding your case.

Written by Karissa Key

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