What is the legal definition of harassment?
The law defines “harassment” as a series of willful acts over a period of time that:
- seriously alarms, annoys, harasses, or harms you without “serving a legitimate purpose”; and
- reasonably causes you to suffer substantial emotional distress (harm); or
- reasonably causes you to fear for the well-being of your child.
Note: This “course of conduct” does not include constitutionally protected activity or constitutionally protected speech.1
As explained above, for the acts to be harassment, they cannot be considered to “serve a legitimate purpose.” To decide if the actions are for a legitimate (valid) purpose, the court will consider whether:
- the abuser started the current contact between you two or whether you both contacted each other;
- the abuser has been given clear notice that all future contact with you is unwanted;
- the acts appear designed to alarm, annoy, or harass you;
- the abuser is acting to try to protect a legal interest in his/her property, to enforce a law, or to meet a legal obligation;
- the abuser’s acts unreasonably interfere with the your privacy or create an intimidating, hostile (unfriendly), or offensive living environment for you;
- there was a court order in the past that limited the abuser’s contact with you or your family.2
1 R.C.W. § 10.14.020
2 R.C.W. § 10.14.030
What is a civil anti-harassment order? Who is eligible?
A civil anti-harassment order is a court order that tells the abuser to stop harassing you. For more information on how an order may help you, see How can a civil anti-harassment order help me?
You do not have to have any specific type of relationship with the abuser (for example, the abuser may or may not be related or married to you; s/he could be a significant other, neighbor, co-worker, or relative).1 Therefore, if you do not meet the requirements to get a domestic violence order for protection due to your relationship to the abuser or due to the fact that the harassment does not meet the legal definition of “domestic violence,” you may be able to file for an anti-harassment order instead.
However, if you do qualify for a domestic violence order for protection or sexual assault protection order based on the harassment, or if you have a no-contact order from a criminal court based on the harassment, then you are most likely not eligible for an anti-harassment order.2 You would have to apply for the domestic violence order for protection or sexual assault protection order instead.
Note: If you are going to apply for an anti-harassment order, remember to be specific about how the abuser has harassed you and about the effect it had on you. According to the law, harassment must involve a series of acts. A single incident, no matter how much it may bother you, does not constitute legal harassment.
1 See R.C.W. § 10.14.080
2 R.C.W. § 10.14.130
What kinds of anti-harassment orders are there? How long do they last?
There are two types of civil anti-harassment orders in Washington, an ex parte temporary order and a final order.
Ex parte temporary anti-harassment order
An ex parte anti-harassment order is a temporary order that you can get when you file your petition in court, without the abuser present. It is designed to protect you until the court hearing for the final civil anti-harassment order. When you file your application for an ex parte anti-harassment order, the judge will read your petition and may hold a hearing where you will tell the judge why you need the order. (The abuser will not be present at this hearing, which is what is meant by the term “ex parte”). A judge will grant the temporary order only if your petition shows reasonable proof of unlawful harassment and if s/he believes that severe or permanent harm will happen to you if you don’t get the order immediately.1
Temporary orders last for a fixed (specific) period of up to 14 days. If the court permits service of the abuser by publication (in a newspaper if the court believes the abuser is purposefully avoiding being served), the order will last for a fixed period up to 24 days. Ex parte orders may be reissued (renewed) until the court holds the hearing for the final order.2
Note: If you have filed for and received two ex parte orders in the past against the same abuser, but you failed to get a final civil anti-harassment order, you cannot get a third ex parte temporary anti-harassment order unless you can prove that there was a good reason why you didn’t get the final order the first two times.3 Therefore, this is something to consider if you currently have an ex parte order and are thinking of dropping it. If you are currently seeking a third ex parte anti-harassment order against an abuser, we strongly suggest you speak with a lawyer.
Final civil anti-harassment order
A final anti-harassment order can be issued only after you and the abuser both have a chance to tell your sides of the story, present evidence, witnesses, etc. A hearing for the final order will be scheduled no more than 14 days from the date you got your temporary order or no more than 24 days if the abuser was notified by publication.2 If the abuser is being served in person (as is normally done), s/he must be served at least five court days before the hearing takes place.4
Generally, the order for protection will last for one year unless the court finds that the abuser is likely to continue the harassment when the order expires. In that case, the judge can make the order for a fixed (specific) amount of time or can make it permanent (last forever). However, if the judge included in the order that the abuser cannot contact his/her minor children, then the anti-harassment order can only last up to a year. For any order that is for one year or for a fixed amount of time, you can apply to renew it when the order expires.5 If you are not sure whether you have a permanent order or not, look to see if there is an expiration date written on the order.6 To get more information about renewing your order, please see How can I modify (change) or extend my civil anti-harassment order?
Note: Even if the abuser does not appear at the hearing or respond to the petition but s/he was properly served (in person or by publication), the judge can still give you a civil anti-harassment order for a minimum of one year from the date of the hearing.7
Also note: When a judge is giving an ex-parte temporary anti-harassment order or a final civil anti-harassment order, the judge cannot do the following things:
- Prohibit the person against whom the order would be issued (the respondent) from exercising constitutionally protected free speech. You may be able to use other civil and criminal alternatives to limit acts or communications that are not constitutionally protected.8
- Prohibit the person against whom the order would be issued (the respondent) from using or enjoying real property that s/he has a right to use, unless the order is issued under dissolution proceedings or legal separation or under a separate action to determine title or possession of the real property.9
- Limit the respondent’s right to care, control, or custody of his or her minor children, unless the order is issued under the family reconciliation act, dissolution proceedings or legal separation, nonparental actions for child custody, or the Uniform Parentage Act.10
1 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(1)
2 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(2)
3 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(10)
4 R.C.W. § 10.14.070
5 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(4)
6 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(11)
7 R.C.W. §§ 10.14.080(2),10.14.105
8 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(7)
9 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(8)
10 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(9)
What protections can I get in a civil anti-harassment order?
It will be up to the judge to decide what is appropriate to stop the harassment by the abuser. The judge can do such things as:
- order the abuser not to contact you (or attempt to contact you);
- order the abuser not to make any attempts to keep you under surveillance (i.e., following you, watching you);
- require the abuser to stay a certain distance away from your home and workplace;1
Note: If both you and the abuser are minors (under 18) and attend the same school, the court can order the abuser to attend a different school (but only if the abuser is being investigated or has gone to court for committing a criminal offense against you).2
If it is shown that an abuser has used, displayed (shown), or threatened to use a firearm/weapon in a felony, previously committed any offense that makes him/her ineligible to possess a firearm, or if the judge believes that the abuser’s possession of a firearm or other dangerous weapon presents a serious and immediate threat to you or someone else, the judge may also:
- require the abuser to surrender any firearm or other dangerous weapon or any concealed pistol license; and
- prohibit the abuser from obtaining or possessing a firearm or other dangerous weapon or a concealed pistol license.3
Note: The surrender of any firearm/weapon or prohibition on getting or having a firearm/weapon may be for a period of time less than the length of the anti-harassment order.3
1 R.C.W. § 10.14.080(6)
2 R.C.W. § 10.14.040(7)
3 R.C.W. §§ 10.14.080(6)(d); 9.41.800
If the abuser lives in a different state, can I still get an order against him/her?
When you and the abuser live in different states, the judge may not have “personal jurisdiction” (power) over an out-of-state abuser. This means that the court may not be able to grant an order against him/her.
There are a few ways that a court can have personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state abuser:
- The abuser has a substantial connection to your state. Perhaps the abuser regularly travels to your state to visit you, for business, to see extended family, or the abuser lived in your state and recently fled.
- One of the acts of abuse “happened” in your state. Perhaps the abuser sends you threatening texts or harassing phone calls from another state but you read the messages or answer the calls while you are in your state. The judge could decide that the abuse “happened” to you while you were in your state. It may also be possible that the abuser was in your state when s/he abused you s/he but has since left the state.
- If you file your petition and the abuser gets served with the court petition while s/he is in your state, this is another way for the court to get jurisdiction.
However, even if none of the above apply to your situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t get an order. If you file, you may be granted an order on consent or the judge may find other circumstances that allow the order to be granted.
You can read more about personal jurisdiction in our Court System Basics - Personal Jurisdiction section.
Note: If the judge in your state refuses to issue an order, you can file for an order in the courthouse in the state where the abuser lives. However, remember that you will likely need to file the petition in person and attend various court dates, which could be difficult if the abuser’s state is far away.