The legal definition of harassment is different depending on the state, because these are usually misdemeanor charges (meaning they are determined by state law and not federal law). Because of this, the definition is usually broad in scope. Harassment might include a number of unwanted behaviors such as any that annoy or intimidate another person. When you threaten another person or make them afraid, you might be charged with harassment.
Then again, you might not.
Police officers will often charge an individual who has threatened another person with simple assault — which is also generally defined as threatening behavior that may or may not include bodily contact (the latter of which is more likely defined as battery). If this seems like a complicated spider web of laws and potential charges, well, that’s right — and that’s the point.
You see, when a police officer charges you with a crime, there’s a process already in place for how to handle your arrest. Depending on the charge, you might sit down with a judge for arraignment, and then be released immediately. You would then go find a criminal defense attorney. The attorney would sit down with the prosecutor assigned to your case. They would work out a deal. The deal would usually include a lesser charge with reduced penalties.
So you might have annoyed or threatened someone, gotten yourself charged with simple assault, and then pleaded down to harassment, which is sort of the same thing except with reduced penalties.
See how the system works?
The potential for reduced penalties compels you and your attorney to work with prosecutors instead of against, saving the court system time and money, and making you feel like you’ve won a second chance.
If you were to instead plead not guilty and ask to go to trial, the prosecutor could actually add or amend the charges against you. For example, if the harassment includes unwanted touching, then the prosecutor might charge you with battery, in which case you would be at risk of increased penalties. This is another way that they get you to work with them and not against them.
Harassment falls under that umbrella in several classes or degrees depending on where you live. It can be further defined depending on whether or not you harassed someone because of a person’s race or religion, etc. One aspect of harassment that is nearly universal is that the perpetrator needs to have “intended” to harass the victim. That means an easy legal defense for harassment is simply that the annoyance or contact had an unintended consequence.
Then again, very few people are charged with harassment. It’s usually part of a plea deal — in other words, it’s a battle strategy for the prosecution.