Freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right, and one
widely regarded as an essential liberty in American life. However, this
freedom is not a blanket protection that encompasses every possible
instance, manner, and quality of speech. Lawmakers and courts have long
recognized that some damaging or dangerous forms of speech should be
prohibited. Making a terrorist threat is one such form of speech that is
prohibited. To learn more about criminal charges, see our topic page Facing Criminal Charges.
Making a Terrorist Threat
a terrorist threat, sometimes known as making a criminal threat or by
similar language, is a crime in every state. People make terrorist
threats when they threaten to commit a crime that would reasonably
result in death, terror, serious injury, or serious physical property
Not all threats are criminal, and not all threats are
considered terrorist threats. Though state and federal laws on terrorist
threats differ widely, they typically include several common elements.
- Threats. A
person usually makes a terrorist threat verbally or in writing, but the
threat does not have to be explicit nor expressed in a written or
verbal format. A person can make a terrorist threat through innuendo or
even body language. Some courts have ruled that a person can be
convicted of making a terrorist threat if a reasonable person could
conclude that the person's actions under the circumstances conveyed a
threat to commit violence. However, some state laws specifically require
that a person make a verbal statement; body language or non-verbal
communications are not enough in those states.
- Specificity. While
a person can make a terrorist threat through innuendo or non-verbal
communication, the threat itself must specifically threaten death,
serious injury, or serious property damage. It doesn't matter that the
person making the threat fails to specify a method. Also, a threat
doesn't have to specify the time when the attack might take place. Any
threat involving a present or future attack is sufficient.
- Reasonability. The
threat a person makes must be reasonable in order to qualify as a
terrorist threat. For example, you cannot commit a terrorist threat if
you threaten to destroy the state capital by ordering your alien army to
do it for you. A reasonable person must be able to conclude that the
threat is credible. If you never intended to commit the crime, that's no
defense--it's sufficient for a conviction that someone else might
reasonably believe that you did.
- Terror. Though
many states criminalize making a “terrorist” threat, it isn't always
necessary for the person's threat to cause someone else to experience
fear or terror. The actions of the accused are what determine whether a
crime has been committed, and it is not always dependent on the emotions
of others. In some states, however, making someone afraid or terrified
as a result of your threat is enough to make it a terrorist threat.
Terrorist Threat Penalties
convicted of making terrorist threats face a range of possible
penalties. Some states categorize the crime as either a misdemeanor or a
felony, or both, depending on the nature of the circumstances. The
penalties involved for a terrorist threat typically include one or more
of the following:
- Incarceration. Anyone
convicted of a misdemeanor offense for making a terrorist or criminal
threat faces up to one year in a county jail. For a felony conviction, a
court can impose a prison sentence of a year or more. Depending on the
state and the nature of the threat, a conviction for making a terrorist
threat can result in a prison sentence of 40, and even 100 or more years
- Fines. Fines for making a terrorist
threat vary widely. Some states impose no minimum fine, while others
impose minimum fines of as little as $200 or as much as $10,000. Maximum
fines for making a terrorist threat can exceed $250,000.
- Restitution. Courts may also order a person convicted of making a terrorist threat
to pay restitution. Restitution is similar to a fine, but instead of
paying it to the state, the convicted person pays restitution to the
victims of the terrorist threat in order to compensate them for any
damages they suffered as a result of the crime.
In misdemeanor cases, and even in some felony cases, a court can
sentence a person convicted of making a terrorist threat to a probation
term. The length of the term differs widely, but typically lasts 6
months or more, depending on the circumstances of the case and state
sentencing rules. Courts may also order probation after the defendant
has served a jail sentence, and may also require the convicted person to
pay a fine or restitution.
Consult an Attorney
Being accused of making a terrorist threat is a very serious charge. Anyone facing such a charge should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Because of the seriousness of the offense and the wide difference in how states approach the crime, you need to find an attorney who not only knows the details of the state law and court cases surrounding it, but one who has experience dealing with the local courts, judges, and prosecutors.