Everyone has the right to live in a safe and secure environment without the fear of death or being injured. When a person’s behavior or act imposes fear or imminent danger to another person, the law treats that as a criminal threat, which can attract hefty penalties when the person is charged in court. Not all threats made verbally or electronically or in writing are criminal threats; they must be clear and unconditional, impose reasonable and sustained fear on the alleged victim, carried out immediately, and the defendant must have had the ability to carry out the threat for the defendant to be liable for criminal charges.
It is crucial that you enlist the help of a criminal defense attorney if you are facing criminal threats charges in Los Angeles, California. You can get in touch with LA Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm for expert representation in your case. Our attorneys will evaluate your case to see if any of the above elements of criminal threats are missing, and challenge the prosecutor’s allegations to see your case dismissed or charges reduced.
What is a Criminal Threat?
California law under penal code 422 PC considers a criminal threat as an act or behavior that imposes some form of fear on another party. These acts are either verbal or non-verbal. This means that written threat or threats transmitted electronically via social media, the internet, or phone call are also considered as threats. The act of threatening should place the other person or those around them in a state of reasonable fear.
The law criminalizes the act of threatening someone in order to commit a crime that might cause death, bodily injury or harm on them. If the victim reasonably believes that their lives or those around them are in imminent danger, then the victim is in a possible state of fear that is caused by the defendant’s action, making it a criminal threat.
An example of a criminal threat is when you threaten to take another person’s property or that of their close relatives, then go ahead to take the property after the party or parties suffer reasonable fear.
Elements of a Criminal Threat
The law has elements of a criminal threat that must be established in order to sustain a criminal threat charge.
Willfully Made a Statement That Threatened to Kill or Injure the Victim
A criminal threat must be made with the intention to hurt the victim. Under this element, the defendant doesn’t need to carry out the act of injuring or killing the victim. Just the intention itself carries significant weight to make it an offense. He/she must have a will to hurt the other party for them to be convicted. The threatening statement does not need to be directed to an individual, it can also be directed to a group of people.
The Threat Was Conveyed Verbally, in Writing or Electronically
Threats are supposed to be communicated to the victim or the other person. This communication can either be verbal, hand-written or via electronic devices such as mobile phones, fax machines, computer, or a video recorder.
Verbal communications are sometimes hard to prove unless there are witnesses who were present at the time the threats were conveyed. Written communication, on the other hand, are easier to be proven by the prosecutor, especially if text messages were used. With the advancement of technology, the prosecution is able to retrieve even deleted messages on all the chatting platforms, and use them as evidence of communication between the defendant and the victim.
The Threat Conveyed should be Understood as a Threat by the Victim
The acts of the defendant must be understood by the victim as threats. If the parties are friends and maybe the threats are jokingly passed and the victim doesn’t understand the impact, then that is not considered a criminal threat.
The Threat Was Unconditional, Clear and Specific
The threat must be clear on whether it’s a threat to the other party or not. It should also be specific in that it is either directed to an identified person or group of people, and it should be specific on what type of threat it is. No condition is expected to be set, just a threat is enough to incriminate someone.
The Threat must be Carried out Immediately
The defendant’s threats must be executed immediately. Threats which are not immediately carried out are considered empty threats. A defendant can issue many threats to the victim every now and then but does not actually execute them. However, the prosecution doesn’t consider any threat as an empty threat as long as the victim can show that they are in real danger by the threats issued against them by the defendant.
The Defendant Had the Ability to Carry out the Threat Immediately
Where the victim is placed in an apparent state of fear where the defendant is in a position to make good his or her threats, then the defendant would be liable for criminal threats charge. For example, if during a fight, a person threatens another person that he/she will kill the person, he/she could face criminal threats charge because of the likelihood that the threat will be executed in the flight.
The Victim Suffered Actual Fear
The prosecutor must show that the victim suffered actual fear and that their safety and that of their family was compromised. The victim must believe that they are in actual danger. If the victim treats the threat as a joke and laughs about the threats conveyed, then the victim was not in actual fear.
The Fear Was Reasonable
Reasonability is key in this case. If your threat is not reasonable and a mere simple joke, then the threat shall not meet the threshold of criminal threats under the California law. If the victim or the recipient of the threat reasonably believed that they are in danger with the threat conveyed, then the threat is considered a criminal threat.
There Was a Sustained Fear
The threats must be sustained in the victim's mind for some time for it to be considered as a criminal threat. This element in criminal threat only applies in a case by case basis.
Penalties of Criminal Threats in California
It is illegal to issue threats against anyone in a quest to put them and those around them in fear. If the prosecutor proves that indeed there was an actual threat given to the victim or any member of the public, then hefty penalties would follow. Below are some of the possible penalties for such a case.
A criminal threat offense can either be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstance of the offense, how the defense team argues out the case, and the defendant’s criminal history. The prosecutor considers whether the defendant has a history of issuing criminal threats before and whether the defendant has had a bad history with the victim. Bad history, in this case, means that the two parties might have had a counteraction on a given issue, maybe a business deal went bad or a property feud among others. The prosecutor will also consider whether the threats conveyed are against one individual person, against multiple persons or on different objectives.
If treated as a misdemeanor, a criminal threat attracts a one year in jail. On the other hand, if it is a felony, a sentence of three years with an added fine is given. If one conveys a criminal threat using a weapon, then a year is added to the usual sentence.
A criminal threat under section 422 of the penal code is considered as a crime of moral turpitude. These are crimes considered more offensive and apprehensive than others. A conviction for a crime of moral turpitude can affect a person’s immigration status if the defendant is not a citizen. Such conviction can also discredit one as a witness and affect their professional status. This means that a defendant is at risk of either being deported if they are not citizens or lose their professional license if they are found guilty.
Possible legal Defenses
For you to be convicted of a criminal threat, the prosecutor must prove beyond reasonable doubt that you were directly involved with the threat. Any loophole on the prosecutor’s side may guarantee your release. The following are some of the possible defenses that help to weaken the prosecution’s arguments.
The Defendant Didn’t Make an Immediate Threat
This does not mean that the threat must be executed the minute it has been conveyed. The penal code provides that the threat must be clear, specific and immediate so much so that it might be executed immediately. However, vague threats might not show any act of immediacy, hence, the wording of the penal code which provides that the threat must be clear. The extent of vagueness for a particular case is determined by its speed of execution and the circumstance it is given.
For instance, if a student in a boarding school issues a threat against the teacher that he shall attack the teacher once he finishes school, then that is not an immediate threat. However, if the student threatens the teacher that the student shall inform some of the friends around the teacher’s neighborhood to attack the teacher and their family, then that threat shows immediacy.
Ambiguous and Vague Threats
For charges of criminal threats to be pressed, the threats must be clear. Ambiguous threats will definitely not hold a criminal threat conviction. Greater precision and clarity of the threat must be determined and established. If a person yells at another person “I will get you”, that is indeed an ambiguous threat since a lot can be interpreted from the statement. However, there are cases that ambiguous threats are considered as threats, mostly if the recipient displayed some form of fear.
The circumstances of the case are also considered. If a neighbor, for example, shows up to another neighbor and hurls insults of threats after being reported for public nuisance, then those threats, even though they might seem vague, might put the neighbor in much fear and considered a criminal threat.
The Victim Did Not Suffer Fear
The victim must be in a state of fear from threats conveyed to the crime for it to be considered a criminal threat. The fear should also be suffered for a consistent period of time. If the victim is not fearful of the threats, then the case might not stand.
An attorney might also argue that a victim might be hypersensitive and that their level of fear cannot be measured to that of a reasonable person. Reasonability is, therefore, key here.
The Fear Was Not Sustained
The victim’s fear must be sustained. If a threat was meant to be for a brief moment and eventually not causing any form of concern, then no convictions are made.
For example, if two friends are arguing and then one of them yells “I have a knife and I will stab you,” of course, the other friend will be fearful. But if he adds, “I don’t have a knife, I was just joking with you,” then his friend breathes a sigh of relief, this is not a sustained fear.
The Threat Was Unreasonable
A threat must be reasonable and real. If the victim showed some unreasonable fear, then a conviction for the threat might not be sustained.
For instance, a person who threatens another person that he will knock him with a car and yet the person making the threat does not even know how to drive, then the fear sustained by the alleged victim is not reasonable and real.
The Defendant Was Engaged in Free Speech
The constitution protects the right to free speech. However, free speech is also regulated and limited. If one’s right to free speech affects the right of another person to live in a free and safe space, then the law comes in to protect individuals. Thus, the purpose of the law is not only to allow free speech but also to deter those who instill fear in others. Note that mere angry utterances or emotional outbursts may not be considered as threats if they don’t put the victim in a state of fear.
A voter, for example, who feels aggrieved by the government, has freedom of speech if he yells at a public rally how he is tired of the administration. His utterances are considered free speech and protected under the constitution.
Any statements made out of spite or vengeance is considered false accusations. A victim who is spiteful against the defendant might identify the defendant to have made threats against the victim out of spite and to get revenge. This is usually proven better when the accusations are verbal than written.
There must be sufficient evidence against the defendant to have the criminal threat charge hold against the defendant. If there are credibility issues with the accuser, or the victim provided unsubstantiated information, then the case might not stand for a conviction.
The Threat Did Not Result to a Bodily Injury or Death
The act of threatening someone in order to commit a crime that might result in death or bodily injury is considered a criminal threat under the law. The phrase “resulting in bodily injury or death” is viewed objectively, especially in the eye of reasonability based on surrounding circumstances. This means that death must be absolute and bodily injury must show actual bodily injury. Therefore, minor harm on the body cannot be considered a condition under the element of criminal threat. If a person threatens you that they will stab you and you sustain a minor cut, then that cannot be considered a bodily injury.
Offenses that are Charged Alongside Criminal Threats
There are offenses which are charged alongside the charge of criminal threat. If a person commits an offense which is in line with a threat they conveyed against the victim, then the prosecutor will charge the defendant with the actual criminal act alongside the criminal threat.
Criminal threats usually occur in an intimate familial relationship such as dating. Threats are usually hurled against each partner out of high emotions. As long as the recipient was in a state of fear for their lives, the threats are treated as criminal threats. The prosecutor might, therefore, replace the charge of the criminal threat with a crime of domestic violence, or the charge of criminal threat in addition to the charge of domestic violence.
Section 518 of the penal code makes it an offense to use threats or force to obtain money or other valuables from a victim. Extortion is commonly known as blackmail. It’s a way of getting something from another person without the absolute consent of the owner. Threatening a public officer in order to compel the officer to perform a public official duty is also considered as extortion under the law. A threat can include threatening to expose a secret, to commit a personal injury or accuse another person of a crime.
Extortion can be done verbally by use of threat, force or by sending a threatening letter to the person. Sending a threatening letter to someone is criminalized under section 523 of the penal code.
Attempted extortion under section 524 of the penal code is also considered an offense where one attempts to obtain money or property from another person by force. The prosecutor must establish that the defendant had an intention to commit extortion and performed certain acts while executing the act of extortion, but was frustrated by some events and failed to execute the act of extortion.
Stalking is criminalized under section 646.9 of the penal code. You are charged with stalking for following and harassing another person to the point where the person fears for their lives. The prosecutor must show under the law that you maliciously and willfully harassed another person, or maliciously and willfully followed another person repeatedly. Additionally, the prosecution must show that you made credible threats with the intent of placing the other person and those around them including family and even friend in fear and that your conduct was not constitutionally protected.
Annoying phone calls
Section 653m (a) of the penal code criminalizes the act of making contacts or telephone calls by use of electronic communication to the other person with the intent of annoying them. The prosecutor must establish that the defendant harbored the intention of making an annoying phone call and that the defendant used obscene language or threats to inflict great bodily injury or death to the recipient. Such language or threats are such that they put the recipient in imminent fear and those around them. Where the defendant has threatened to cause bodily injury or death to the recipient, then the prosecutor may choose to charge the defendant under section 422 of the penal code for criminal threats.
This criminal offense under section 601 of the penal code is normally charged alongside criminal threats. This offense is charged when the defendant makes a threat against the safety of another person and eventually trespasses either on the property of the person or even their workplace.
The penal code under section 136.1 prohibits preventing a witness either to testify or report any criminal activity. If one dissuades a witness by either using threats in order to prevent them from testifying the truth, then he/she is liable for punishment of up to one year in county jail or four years in state prison.
If you are being charged with a crime feel free to contact our Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer for a free consultation.