Terrorist Threat Laws and Penalties

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.

Updated by , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law

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.

What Defines a Terrorist Threat?

Making 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 damage.

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

Defendants 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 in prison.
  • 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.
  • Probation. 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.

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