When Do Innocent Threats become Criminal Threats?

Have you ever made a threat to someone's life, safety, or well being with no intention to follow through with action? You know, the type of threat you mindlessly mumble when someone cuts you off in traffic or your boss criticizes a project that took you extra two weeks to complete. These innocent threats are a way to release pressure, and in most cases they never lead to trouble.

Those innocent threats can become what the California Penal Code considers criminal threats if they are spoken with the intention of scaring someone and that person actually takes the threats seriously. This area of law falls under California Penal Code 422, which states that the following criteria must be present in order for a threat to be considered criminal:

  • The threat must be specific and clear.
  • The victim of the threat must feel genuine fear for their safety or the safety of their immediate family members.

It can be difficult to determine whether a threat will qualify as a crime without considerable legal experience and research into California law. For instance, what if someone says they are coming to your home in a threatening tone and you believe they will hurt you? Simply saying they are coming over doesn't rise to the level of a specific threat to your safety, and that type of general statement could have multiple meanings. It takes an experienced attorney to consider all elements of the situation to determine how the case should be defended in court.

Note that how the threat is received is also critical in determining whether a threat is criminal. If the victim laughed and did not take the threat seriously, then it could be argued in court that the threat was not criminal in nature and the victim understood that. Alternatively, if you spoke a threat without genuine intention to follow through but the victim believed you would take action and feared for their safety, you could be charged with a crime.

What about Electronic Threats?

Threats issued through text message, email, and social media are becoming quite common in California courtrooms. These threats are now included under California law, so you can be charged with issuing criminal threats without the words actually leaving your mouth. Leaving your fingertips and transmitting to someone else who fears for their safety as a result is more than enough to result in criminal charges.

What are the Penalties?

Depending on the circumstances of the case, you can be charged with misdemeanor or felony criminal threats. If convicted of a felony, the charge is considered a "strike" which remains on your criminal record the rest of your life.

It is best not to issue threats in any form, but sometimes emotions take over and you do things you later regret. When that happens, contact us to schedule an appointment in our Murrieta, California, law office. We are located near the Southwest Justice Center and serve the Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Hemet, Corona and Riverside areas in various areas of criminal law.

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