Criminal Threats

Rage, emotional bursts, and anger are what most humans experience due to various triggers. You could get angry at your spouse, cohabitant, ex-partner, or even child. Owing to the building fury, you yell at someone, threatening that you would cause harm or kill them. Under California law, statements containing threats could land you behind bars and get you charged with the crime of criminal threats.

However, yelling at someone does not constitute a criminal threat. There are elements per California Penal Code 422 PC that the crime must entail, and the prosecution must prove in court for the jury to sentence you. For instance, the threat must be immediate and should cause sustained and reasonable fear to the victim. The prosecution bears the burden of proof, and you have the right to defend yourself in court.

Are you or any of your loved ones facing charges of criminal threats in Los Angeles? If so, The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney could not only offer expert advice but also represent you in court. We understand California’s criminal threat laws are strict and carry severe penalties. Talk to us today!

What Constitutes a Criminal Threat Per California Law?

It is a criminal offense per California Penal Code 422 PC to willfully threaten someone else that you would do something that could cause them serious bodily harm or even death. The law finds you guilty also though you had no intention of committing the crime.

Considered as a domestic violence crime, you could commit the crime through verbal, written, or electronic communication. Examples of communication forms include social media posts, e-mails, and text messages.

What Elements Must the Prosecutor Prove?

The prosecution bears the burden to prove that you are guilty of allegations against you. The judge must receive proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed and met the elements before deciding to convict you.  These elements include:

  • You willfully and knowingly threatened someone else that you would cause serious bodily harm or kill them
  • You intended to relay your message – written, verbal, or electronic as threats
  • Your threats were categorical, abrupt, and had the precise message of potential execution
  • Your victim developed a fear for their safety and that of their loved ones

You don’t have to address the victim directly for the prosecution to charge you with the crime of criminal threats. For example, in the case of People vs. Lipsett (2014), the accused and plaintiff fought over a dirt bike, where the plaintiff alleged that the accused attempted to steal their bike. In between the struggle, the defendant shouted to someone else to shoot the victim. The defendant is said to have violated PC 422 because they willfully asked someone else to cause harm/ kill the victim. Here, the defendant’s words/ verbal message was intended to instill fear in the victim.

Definition of Terms

Here, you learn common phrases and terms used to explain California’s criminal threats law. These include:

To Seriously Injure or Kill Someone Else

According to California Penal Code 422 PC, you don’t have to threaten the victim to commit any particular criminal offense against them. The law finds you guilty if you just threaten to inflict serious bodily harm or kill the victim.

You could direct the threats to one person or group of persons like a company or workers.

Great Bodily Injury (GBI)

As the name suggests, GBI refers to substantial or significant physical injuries caused to someone. Moderate and insignificant injuries cannot fall under the GBI category. Other injuries considered as significant bodily injuries are brain trauma and paralysis. Note that you cannot find financial and emotional damage as GBI.

Before the jury can consider your injuries as GBI, they look at factors like:

  • The severity of the victim’s physical injury
  • The pain the victim bears
  • The kind of treatment the injuries need

Statements Relayed Via Verbal, Written, or Electronic Form

California’s criminal threats require that a defendant threatens their victim via a written, electronic, or verbal medium. However, the law does not consider gestures as criminal offenses if there is no involvement of the communication forms, mentioned earlier.

For instance, if you place a finger on your neck and slide it across your throat, the court cannot judge this as a criminal threat. The prosecution can charge you with criminal threats if you accompany the gesture with a sound like “shush” and satisfy the rest of the crime’s elements.

With electronic devices, you can relay threats electronically through text messages, video recorders, computers, or telephone. The most used electronic medium to convey threats is text-messaging, and it doubles up as the easiest to prove.


You commit the crime of criminal threat only if your victim develops fear. Per the criminal threats’ context, fear entails three different notions, that is:

  • The plaintiff was afraid
  • You caused reasonable fear to the victim
  • The victim's fear got sustained. Short-lived or temporary fear is not considered Under California law

Actual Fear

You can only get convicted for violating PC 422 if the victim feared that their lives and those of loved ones were in danger. The prosecution bears the burden of proof. In some circumstances, the court can rule out the actual fear concept. For example, if you threaten someone and they respond, "I care less" or "whatever!” the court could rule that the plaintiff didn’t consider the threat as life-threatening. On the other hand, if the plaintiff installs a security system or stays in private, the prosecution could use this fact as evidence of actual fear.

In California, you are guilty of criminal threats, even if you convey it via a third party. All that the prosecution needs to prove the credibility of the threat and the victim’s fear of the threat’s execution. As mentioned above, you don’t have a case to answer if the victim doesn’t show fear. However, if actual fear is evident, the prosecution still must prove that the fear was reasonable.

Reasonable Fear

There are some threats that the court could term as unreasonable or unrealistic. For example, if you threaten someone else that you would hijack a fighter jet and send a missile to their home, the court cannot prosecute you since the threat doesn’t satisfy the description of the California criminal threat.

An example of a reasonable threat is where you threaten to shoot someone else, and you simulate the removal of a gun from your rear pocket. Even though there is no immediate ability to shoot the victim, there is a reasonable belief that you would have killed them if you had a real gun. Here, you are guilty of criminal threats provided your threat satisfies all other elements of PC 422.

Sustained Fear

Determining sustained fear in a criminal threat case is complex for investigators. The complexity crops up because “sustained” has no precise time frame. Currently, courts make rulings on a case-by-case basis and consider “sustained” as the mind’s state that extends beyond what is temporary, fleeting, or momentary. The prosecution bears the burden to prove that the victim's fear lasts for long, even though there is no explanation on how long fear should last.

To illustrate a scenario of sustained fear, you can imagine a fight between two people at a grocery shop. The accused steps out of the store and returns brandishing a pocket knife tucked on his belt. Further, the defendant threatens to kill the plaintiff together with their daughter if they don’t leave immediately.

The prosecution could argue that the victim feared for their life their daughter's during the one-minute struggle. After 20 minutes, the victims decide to call the cops saying that they are really scared. Even though the confrontation lasted for 60 seconds, the jury could rule that the 20 minutes the plaintiff lived in fear, per California law, could constitute sustained fear.

Another scenario showing no presence of sustained fear is where the jury discovers that the plaintiff's panic was momentary. For example, when an employer (victim) accidentally hits their employee (defendant) on the face when opening the door making the employee feel disrespected. To avenge the harm caused to them, the employee angrily faces the boss and tells them they will pay for the disrespect dearly. The employer sends the employee home, and cops question the employee the following day, and another interrogation followed after a week.

In this scenario, the jury cannot find any probability of sustained fear. Here, the employer’s fear doesn’t extend beyond the few seconds of confrontation. Again, the boss sends the employee home instead of calling the cops immediately.

Empty and Conditional Threats

According to PC 422, criminal threats are abrupt, unconditional, precise, and explicit towards the victim. These threats show the possibility of the defendant to carry them out. However, there are conditional and empty threats and cannot, at any moment, qualify as criminal threats.

Empty Threats

These refer to threats that the defendant has no intentions to execute. If looked into at depth, you notice that the accused used empty threats to scare the victim away rather than threaten them. For the plaintiff to perceive threats as reasonable, the defendant must credibly relay the threats.

A good example of an empty threat is where an ex-soldier (the accused) who disagreed with a hardware owner (plaintiff), threatened to get a grenade and explode the store. After a few hours, the ex-soldier showed up with a grenade in his hand, and the store owner, together with the workers, got scared.

After arriving at the scene, the police discovered that the grenade was drilled; hence, not active. In this scenario, the accused had zero intentions to blow up the hardware store even though the store owner and employees had reasonable fear.

Conditional Threats

As the name suggests, conditional threats are voiced as conditions. For example, telling your victim that you would kill them after you get out of jail or kill them if they don’t return your money before the month ends. The court could rule the threats as credible if the victim believed the accused could execute the threats.

Based on the circumstances surrounding your criminal case, the court could consider conditional statements as blackmail or extortion and could attract extra charges under PC 518. Also, when there is a likelihood that the defendant would execute conditional threats, the court could charge them with criminal threats.

In a nutshell, the biggest share of conditional threats entails goals, which the persons issuing threats wish to achieve, so that they don't have to reissue similar threats.

Punishment, Penalties, and Sentencing for Penal Code 422 PC

In California, the prosecution can choose to charge you with a misdemeanor or felony for violating PC 422 as the offense is a wobbler. The court decides on which wobbler offense to charge you with, depending on the severity of your case and prior criminal record.

If charged with a misdemeanor, your potential penalty is a fine not exceeding $1,000 or serving jail time in a county jail for not more than a year.  If your offense is a felony criminal threat, the court could sentence you to state prison for not more than three years or pay a fine that doesn’t exceed $10,000. Also, the court could add one year to your prison sentence if you used a firearm or any other weapon deemed dangerous to threaten your victim.

California’s court could impose the above punishment for every threat that you issue if you communicate the threat with various goals, to many people, or more than once.

California's Three Strikes Law

You are subjected to California Three Strikes law if charged with felony criminal threats. California considers any crime under the felony category as a severe felony; hence, qualifying for the three-strikes law. The prosecution considers your current strike as a second strike if your criminal record has a strike. Here, the court doubles your time in prison as dictated by Penal Code 422.

A third strike occurs when you have two other prior strikes in your previous criminal record. As a third striker, you could spend not less than 25 years in prison or life imprisonment.  Before the court can release you on parole, you must complete not less than 85 percent of your prison sentence.

Other Punishments for PC 422 Convictions

The crime of criminal threats is categorized under moral turpitude offenses. That means criminal offenses are considered more reprehensible and offensive compared to others. As a crime of moral turpitude, a criminal threat conviction could make you lose your professional permit or get deported if you are a foreigner.

Potential Legal Defenses to California Penal Code 422 PC

The court or jury cannot convict you for the crime of criminal threats before the prosecution proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you satisfy elements of the offense. That said, you and your criminal defense lawyer can cast doubt in the evidence presented in court and have allegations against you dismissed or charges lowered.

Hiring a reputable defense attorney gives you peace of mind knowing you have someone who can help build robust defenses. Examples of defenses include:

1. Your Threat Was Imprecise or Equivocal

The law requires that, for a threat to satisfy a criminal threat threshold, it must be unequivocal and precise. Even though precision is one factor that the jury considers, the criminal threat doesn’t need to explain the exact method of execution.

With a wise criminal defense lawyer, you could argue that even if your offense, given the circumstances, qualifies as a threat under PC 422, there is the absence of factors that need to go with a criminal threat.

2. The Threat Wasn't Immediate

Specific, unequivocal, immediate, and unconditional are common phrases in PC 422 and communicates the probability of immediate execution. Speaking of immediate execution doesn’t imply that the defendant has to do anything at that instant.

There are cases where the accused executes the threats while in others, they threaten to perform the threats if the plaintiff doesn't comply with their demand before a given period. However, you and your lawyer could argue that your threat was vague, and there is no evidence that you would execute the threat at any moment.

3. The Victim Did Not Get Scared

You are not guilty of violating Penal Code 422 PC if the plaintiff didn’t fear your threat. The victim could have believed that the threat was a joke, or you cannot execute it. If with the help of an experienced lawyer, you can prove that the victim wasn't afraid, the court could acquit you.

4. The Victim’s Fear Wasn't Sustained

Yet another factor of fear that the prosecution must prove is sustained fear. There would be a need for your acquittal if your victim's fear was fleeting or momentary. You need an experienced defense attorney to prove that your threats never prompted any extended concerns.

Another defense you could use in the context is the victim’s overreaction. The victim’s fear could be sustained, but owing to the overreaction fact, the court could rule that the fear was never reasonably sustained.

5. The Threat or Victim's Fear Was Unreasonable

Reasonable fear is an element that the prosecution must prove before the court can convict you for violating PC 422. There is a need for your acquittal if the prosecution cannot prove that the victim’s fear was real and reasonable. For instance, if you threaten someone else that you would run over them with a ship while they are on land, it is unreasonable for them to develop fear.

6. You Have Freedom of Speech

California law allows freedom of speech. The prosecution before charging you must ascertain that you caused fear and not just, even though aggressive, yelling angrily or having emotional bursts. If you believe that you were expressing your rights to freedom of speech, your lawyer could use this as a defense since it is constitutionally protected.

7. False Accusations

The law doesn’t require the plaintiff to suffer bodily harm for the defendant to face charges. Therefore, it is easy for someone else to accuse you falsely. False accusations could occur, especially if electronic communication is lacking, and the plaintiff alleges that you threatened them verbally.

If facing false allegations, you need an experienced attorney who can examine the case and detect fabrications and uphold your reputation.

Related Offenses to Penal Code 422 PC

There exist several crimes that Californian courts could charge in the place of or in addition to criminal threats. That could happen because the crimes are closely related to criminal threats. The prosecution could also charge you with both crimes if you threatened or attempted to kill or inflict severe injuries to someone else. These include:

Dissuading A Witness: California PC 136.1

It is a crime in California to discourage or attempt to prevent witnesses or victims of criminal offenses from reporting the crimes or testifying against defenders. The prosecution could add in your charge sheet intimidating a witness if you try and dissuade a witness from testifying through threatening to harm them.

Witness tampering is a wobbler. That means the prosecution could charge you with either a felony or a misdemeanor offense. If the prosecution charges it as a misdemeanor, you could serve jail time for not less than a year in county jail or pay a fine not exceeding $1,000. If charged as a felony offense, dissuading a witness is punishable by paying a fine not exceeding $10,000 or staying in state prison for not more than four years.

Extortion: California PC 518

Under PC 518, extortion happens when you threaten someone else to gain property, money, or favor. You also violate PC 518 if you threaten or force a public officer to perform official duties. Often, extortion cases are charged as felony offenses. If convicted for the crime, you could pay a fine of up to $10,000 or serve jail time in a county jail for two to four years.

Domestic Violence

California law prohibits anyone from threatening to injure or injure their intimate partners, parents, or children. Often, defendants threaten their partners when charged with emotions even though they could have zero intentions to cause harm. Out of fear, the victim could report the incident and have you charged with either criminal threats under domestic violence or as an additional crime.

Contact a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

When facing criminal threats charges in Los Angeles, you want to seek legal counsel from an experienced criminal defense lawyer. The attorney evaluates your case and advises on the best defense and tactics to counter the prosecution.

After many years of securing freedom for our clients, The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney team is now the go-to Los Angeles legal firm for credible results in your case. Arrange a free consultation today with our attorney at 310-564-2605.

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