Criminal Threats: Laws and Penalties

Making criminal threats comes with serious consequences, even if you didn't plan to carry out the threat.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated May 26, 2022

A criminal threat occurs when someone threatens to kill or physically harm someone else. In some states, this crime might be referred to as terroristic threats, threats of violence, malicious harassment, menacing, or another term.

What Is a Criminal Threat?

A criminal threat involves one person threatening someone else with physical harm or death. To be convicted, the prosecution must prove:

  • the defendant communicated a threat of harm to another
  • the defendant intended that the communication be taken as a threat, and
  • the threat was credible and specific so as to place a person in fear of harm.

Communicating a Threat of Harm

A person can communicate a threat in almost any form—written, verbal, electronically, or through a third person. In some instances, a defendant's non-verbal body language, gestures, or actions have been enough to communicate a threat.

Intent to Threaten Harm

Criminal threats are made with the intent of placing someone in fear of injury or death. It doesn't matter if the defendant intends to carry out the threat. Also, many states don't require proof that a victim actually experienced fear or terror. Rather, it's the intent of the person making the threat to place another in fear that typically matters.

Specificity and Credibility of Threats

The threat must be capable of placing someone in fear of harm and lead them to conclude that the threat is credible, real, and imminent. If you threaten to blow up the world if you don't get the last chocolate babka, 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 everyone, such a threat is credible and specific.

Are Death or Bomb Threats Illegal?

Yes. In many states, death threats fall under the criminal threats described above. Some states penalize making threats of serious harm or death harsher than other threats.

A person can also commit a crime by threatening to blow up a building. In most states, communicating a threat to detonate a bomb or explosive at a named place or location, whether it's true or not, is illegal. In such cases, the defendant recklessly causes terror and fear in others. These types of actions can result in felony penalties. The law may impose even harsher penalties if the threat results in an evacuation, emergency response, bodily harm to someone, or a serious public inconvenience (like shutting down a subway line).

What Are the Penalties for Criminal Threats?

State and federal laws vary considerably when it comes to penalties for criminal threats, ranging from misdemeanors to serious felonies. Some laws impose harsher penalties when the defendant:

  • carries out the threat while armed with a deadly weapon or makes the victim believe the same is true
  • makes repeated threats or stalks the victim
  • makes a threat of retaliation against a judge, officer, juror, lawyer, or other public safety or court official
  • threatens someone based on hate, bias, or prejudice, or
  • communicates threats that cause an evacuation of a school, government building, public transportation vehicle or hub, or place of assembly.

State Penalties for Criminal Threats

Here are some examples of state penalties for criminal threats.

  • California makes it a wobbler offense to engage in criminal threats. A person faces up to a year in jail or time in prison. (Cal. Penal Code § 422.)
  • In Colorado, threats or menacing without a weapon carries class 1 misdemeanor penalties, but implying or having a weapon increases the penalty to a class 5 felony. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-3-206.)
  • Ohio makes it a fourth-degree misdemeanor to threaten physical harm and a first-degree misdemeanor to threaten serious physical harm (Ohio Code §§ 2903.21, .22.)
  • Virginia makes it a Class 6 felony to threaten death or serious bodily injury. (Va. Code § 18.2-60.)

Federal Penalties for Criminal Threats

Individuals who communicate a threat to injure another can face federal felony charges if they use a form of interstate commerce, such as email, mail, phone calls, texts, or online messaging, to send the threat. This federal offense carries up to 5 years in federal prison. (18 U.S.C. § 875.) Sending such threats repeatedly can lead to federal criminal stalking charges and up to 10 years in prison. (18 U.S.C. §§ 2261, 2261A.) Depending on the circumstances of the threats or the intended recipient, other federal penalties may apply.

Possible Defenses for Criminal Threats

Defendants might be able to argue that they had no intent to communicate a true threat, rather it was just a joke or a matter of blowing off steam. In some cases, a defendant could argue the words were protected as free speech, such as a form of political exaggeration or art. Your lawyer might be able to argue that the underlying criminal statute is unconstitutional because it's vague or overbroad.

Speak to a Lawyer

Being charged with making a criminal threat is a serious matter. Speak to a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice process, protect your rights, and understand the immediate and long-term consequences of a conviction.

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