Felony "Menacing" Charges

Learn the basics of menacing charges, the definition of menacing, and the possible penalties for a conviction.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 2/03/2023

Intending to make someone believe you'll hurt them can result in menacing charges, even if you never lay a finger on the person. When it comes to the crime of menacing, it's your intent and actions that matter.

What Is Menacing?

Menacing crimes focus on the offender's intent to place another person in reasonable fear of immediate harm. Usually, no injury or physical contact is required, and the prosecutor doesn't need to prove the that offender intended actual physical harm or that the victim was fearful. Rather, menacing occurs when the offender takes some action intending to scare someone with the fear of imminent harm.

Not all states have the crime of "menacing." But for those that do, they generally fall into the following categories.

Menacing as an Assault

In some states, menacing is another way of describing an assault—an attempt to hit or hurt someone or to place another in fear of imminent bodily harm or offensive contact. For example, throwing a punch at someone could result in menacing charges, even if the person isn't actually hit. Yelling threats at someone, or even looking at someone while making threatening gestures, could also be considered menacing.

Aggravated Menacing or Brandishing

Menacing can also refer to displaying a deadly weapon in a threatening manner. This crime is sometimes called aggravated menacing or brandishing. Deadly weapons include guns, knives, and other items designed as weapons. In some states, any object, including a part of the defendant's body, can be a deadly weapon if the defendant uses it to hurt someone, or threatens or attempts to hurt someone with it. For example, a person who waves a gun around could be convicted of menacing.

Menacing by Stalking

Some states also have laws against menacing by stalking—engaging in a pattern of placing another person in fear of bodily harm. For example, if a person keeps showing up at an ex-spouse's home, calling or texting repeatedly, and making threats of physical harm, the person could be convicted of menacing by stalking.

Is Menacing a Felony or Misdemeanor?

The punishment for menacing can vary. Depending on the facts, menacing may be a misdemeanor, often punishable by up to a year in jail, or a felony, punishable by incarceration in state prison. For felony menacing, a defendant might face three to five years in prison, sometimes more.

Factors that tend to push menacing charges from a misdemeanor to a felony include:

  • the use of a weapon
  • the increased threat of harm to a victim
  • a defendant's history of past menacing or related convictions
  • the existence of a restraining or protective order, or
  • the status of the victim as a protected class (such as a police officer or vulnerable victim).

On top of ordering a convicted defendant to serve time, a judge might issue a restraining order that prohibits the defendant from having any contact with the victim.

Defenses to Menacing Charges

Possible defenses to menacing charges will depend on the case. For instance, a defendant might be able to argue that they acted in self-defense if the "victim" was the initial aggressor. Say the victim repeatedly punched the defendant and, only after those punches, did the defendant pull out a pocket knife to stop the assault. The defendant could argue this action was in self-defense.

Another defense strategy might be to poke holes in the prosecution's case by arguing the defendant never intended their actions to be taken as a threat of harm. Perhaps the defendant was shining a pen light and someone thought it was a rifle scope. The defendant might argue the lack of intent means no crime was committed.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you're charged with menacing, contact a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court based on the law in your state and the assigned judge and prosecutor. With an attorney's help, you can present the strongest defense and obtain the best possible outcome in your case, such as a dismissal, an acquittal, or the minimum sentence.

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