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.
A criminal threat involves one person threatening someone else with physical harm or death. To be convicted, the prosecution must prove:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
Here are some examples of state 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.
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.
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.