Text messages sent with ill will can be a crime

The next time you get upset with someone and consider sending a telephone text message, you might want to think again.

If it comes across as a threat, or even if you text an annoying message repeatedly, the police could come knocking on your door.

"It's actually easier to prosecute if someone does a text message (threat instead of a phone call)," said Lt. Troy Elwell, of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office. "If you've got the text there, you've got the evidence."

And the punishment could be just as stiff as if you verbally threatened them.

"Even though sometimes it's easier to send that (a text message) ... it could still get you the same punishment," he said.

Lately, police say they've seen more reports from people saying they've been threatened or harassed in a text message.

In a case reported in Hephzibah last week, a woman told police that another woman had called her several times after being told not to and that she also sent a text message stating, "I'm gonna kill you."

On Dec. 7, a North Augusta woman told authorities that she had received four text messages from a family member by marriage and that one was threatening. In that case, police advised the suspect not to call or text the woman again.

And on Nov. 30, a report was filed with North Augusta Department of Public Safety in which someone reported receiving repeated vulgar text messages and a picture via cell phone of an unknown man's genitals.

In Columbia County, sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said about one-third of the harassment reports are text-message-related. He said about half involve a threat.

"We have some that are not threatening but are annoying and harassing," Capt. Morris said, adding that such text messages can be a crime even if the person hasn't asked the sender to quit. "It's not like criminal trespass where you have to warn them first."

Richmond County sheriff's Maj. Ken Autry said his county hasn't had many text message harassment reports in the past, "But we're starting to see some now." He said one recent case involved a person sending a text from Canada, which proves more difficult to prosecute because there is a greater burden of proof to make it a federal case.

In Georgia, Capt. Morris said, improper text messages fall under the harassing telephone calls statute. A conviction would be a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to 12 months' confinement, up to a $1,000 fine, or both, he said.

In South Carolina, Lt. Elwell said, such cases are considered unlawful use of a telephone, which is a misdemeanor and results in a fine not less than $100 and not more than $500 and no more than 30 days' imprisonment. Lt. Elwell said the only catch to prosecuting text-message cases is to prove who was using the phone at the time, but he said that usually isn't difficult.

Capt. Morris said many times people don't realize how easy a text message can be tracked.

"They may be under the misunderstanding that these calls cannot be traced when in fact they can," he said, adding that the sheriff's office often issues subpoenas to cell phone providers to retrieve text messages. "And within a few days, we receive those records."

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 823-3338 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.