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Even though the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, that right is not an absolute one. The law has long recognized specific limitations when it comes to speech, such as prohibitions against slander and libel. In some situations, speech can even constitute a crime, such as in the case of criminal threats. A criminal threat, sometimes known as the terrorist threat, malicious harassment, or by other terms, occurs when someone threatens to kill or physically harm someone else.
A criminal threat involves one person threatening someone else with physical harm. The threat must be communicated in some way, though it doesn't necessarily have to be verbal. A person can make a threat through email, text message, or even through non-verbal body language such as gestures or movements. However, some states require written or verbal threats, and in those states gestures are not enough.
Fear and Intent
Criminal threats are made with the intention to place someone in fear of injury or death. However, it isn't necessary for a victim to actually experience fear or terror. Rather, it's the intention of the person making the threat that matters. The intent of a person who makes threats is usually determined by the circumstances surrounding the case.
Specificity and Reasonableness
You cannot commit a criminal threat if the threat is vague or unreasonable. The threat must be capable of making the people who hear it feel as if they might be hurt, and conclude that the threat is credible, real, and imminent. If, for example, you threaten to blow up the world unless your bartender doesn't bring your drink to you immediately, no reasonable person hearing it would believe the threat was real. On the other hand, if you walk into a store with a gun and threaten to shoot the clerk unless she gives you a refund, such a threat is credible and specific.
The crime of assault, in some states, is very similar to criminal threats. An assault occurs when a person either attempts to physically injure someone else, or uses threats of force accompanied by threatening actions. Words alone are usually not enough to commit an assault, and some sort of physical action is typically required. For example, threatening to punch someone is usually not an assault. However, making the threats and then approaching the person in a threatening manner does qualify as assault. So, the same conduct that is considered a criminal threat in one state may be classified as an assault in another.
A court can impose several possible penalties on someone who was convicted of making criminal threats. Depending on the state, a criminal threat can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony offense. While felony offenses are more serious than misdemeanors, either of them can result in incarceration, fines, and other penalties.
- Prison or jail. Anyone convicted of making a criminal threat faces a substantial time in jail or prison. A misdemeanor conviction can result in up to a year in county jail, while felony convictions can impose sentences of five years or more. In some instances, a terrorist threat can result in a sentence that lasts decades.
- Fines. The fine for making criminal threats also varies depending on the state and the circumstances of the case. A misdemeanor conviction might bring a fine of up to $1,000, though more is possible in some situations. Felony convictions can have fines that exceed $10,000.
- Probation. A court may sentence someone convicted of making criminal threats to probation. Probation typically lasts at least 12 months, during which time you must comply with specific probation conditions. Common conditions include maintaining employment, asking the court or your probation officer's permission before you move or leave the state, and not committing any more crimes.
Speak to a Lawyer
Being charged with making a criminal threat is a very serious situation. You need to speak to a criminal defense lawyer any time you are charged with a crime, especially one as serious as making criminal threats. Laws differ significantly among states, though any conviction will impose significant consequences. You should never face a criminal charge without the assistance of a local criminal defense attorney who is experienced with the criminal justice system in your area. An area attorney who knows local courts and prosecutors, and who understands the legal requirements of the criminal threat laws in your state, is the only person qualified to give you advice about your case.