Criminal threats are some of the common offenses we handle at The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney. The reason for this is because making criminal threats are not taken lightly in Los Angeles and California as a whole. The state has very stringent laws against anyone that issues a warning that is likely to result in fear, bodily injury, or even death of another person. If therefore, you are facing criminal threats charges, we advise you to get in touch with the best criminal defense attorney. This way, you might avoid facing such consequences as lengthy prison terms and hefty fines.
Legal Definition of Criminal Threats
Section 422 of the California Penal Code is the law that covers the offense of criminal threats. The state of California previously called the same part of the law terrorist threats. The essence of this law is to caution people who willfully make threats to commit a crime, which might result in significant physical harm or death to another person. The threat, which the offender is expected to take as so, could be made in writing, verbally, or through an electronic communication device. Note that a criminal threat will be considered as an offense even if the person issuing it has no intention of carrying out the threat.
The meaning of criminal threats as provided under Section 422 is very clear on what qualifies as a criminal threat and what does not. In general, the law makes it illegal for any person to issue a warning against another with immediate injury, to cause sustained and reasonable fear in the person. To be convicted of this crime, there are facts that the prosecutor needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. These are the elements of this crime, and they are as follows:
- That the offender willfully issued out a threat to seriously injure or kill another person
- That the offender did so with the intention that the written, electronically communicated, or verbal statement will be taken as an intimidation
- That the threat was apparent, unconditional, specific and immediate, and it carried a possibility of quick implementation
- The person who was threatened experience great fear for their safety or the well-being of their immediate family
The offender can still face criminal threats charges even if they did not address the person they wanted to threaten directly. If the threat is issued out through another person, it will still be considered as a criminal threat, punishable by law.
From the definition, there are specific legal terms/statements that you need to understand in detail:
A threat to injure or kill another person: This crime does not require you to issue out a specific warning to another person. A simple threat to cause serious bodily harm or kill another person is enough to convict you. Note that the nature of the threat should give the warned person the idea that they could suffer great physical harm or death in the hands of the offender. Again, the threat could be directed to one person or a crowd of people, for instance, to employees in a particular company or members of a specific family.
A written, spoken or electronically conveyed threat: The kind of criminal threat covered under Section 422 is one that has been demonstrated in these three modes. If the offender only gestured to kill or injure another person, with no written or verbally communicated message, they may not face criminal threats charges in California.
Example: An offended person slides a finger across their throat, looking at a person who offended them. Nothing is said during the commissioning of this act. The person might not be guilty of criminal threats in California.
However, if they uttered word/words, even by calling the name of the person who offended them, this will qualify as a crime of criminal threat, punishable by law.
Note that electronically conveyed threats are those that are communicated through computers, telephone (both cell phones and landlines), video recordings, texts or pagers, and fax machines. Some criminal threats are conveyed through text messages. These are, in fact, very easy to prove by the prosecutor.
The threat caused fear: the crime of criminal threats is not complete if it has not placed the target in a reasonable amount of fear. This fear, as used in Section 422, includes three distinct concepts:
- That the threatened person was truly fearful
- That the amount of fear was realistic
- That the fear in the victim was sustained and not fleeting or momentary
Actual fear, in this case, means that the victim was fearful for their safety or the well-being of their family. Fear is among the elements that the prosecutor is required to prove to convict the offender of criminal threats charges. If the threatened person dismissed the threat with scorn or laughter, it could be taken that they did not consider the threat as dangerous. If the victim went ahead and installed a security system in their home, or went into hiding following the threat, their actions automatically mean that they were in actual fear. That is the exact evidence the prosecutor will use to find the offender guilty.
For the threat to be considered as a criminal offense, the threatened person has to think of it as credible. When they believe that the intimidation is reliable, they will be fearful that the offender will execute it. It could happen, so even if the threat was not issued directly to the victim. California laws will still find a person guilty of criminal threats offense also if they are not the ones who personally issued out the threat.
In that case, if the target wasn't scared, it means that they knew that the offender could not have carried out the threat, and this disqualifies it from a criminal threat. However, if the threatened person was in great fear, the prosecutor will seek to find if their concern was reasonable or not.
Reasonable fear comes when the victim is genuinely sure that they will suffer if the offender executes the threat. An unreasonable threat is one that the offender does not have the means to complete, and so, the victim does not have a reason to be afraid. Note that the offender may not have the ability to carry out their threat immediately, but they could still do it in the future. Provided the victim believes that the execution of the threat could happen; their fear will be reasonable.
If for instance, a person threatens to shoot another. They put their hands in their pockets to try and appear as if they are drawing out a gun. Criminal threats in such a situation could suffice as long as all the other elements of the offense are satisfied. In this case, there is no way for a victim to be sure that the offender does not have a gun with them. The uncertainty makes their fear reasonable.
The fear has to be sustained for the offense to qualify as a criminal threat. The prosecutor might have a hard time proving sustained fear in the victim. That is why California courts have introduced the concept of the state of mind, to refer to fear that goes beyond fleeting, transitory, and momentary. There is, however, no timeframe for the state of mind, so it must be proved on a case-to-case basis.
The threat victim must have experienced sustained fear for the criminal threat charges to hold. Sustained fear is the amount of anxiety that goes beyond a single moment. There is no exact length of time in which the fear must have lasted though.
The threat has to be unconditional and not empty: the kind of threat charged under Section 422 of California law is one that is unconditional, unambiguous, specific, and immediate. Such a type of threat will prove to the victim of the seriousness of the warning and the likelihood that the threat could be carried out immediately. Even with that, conditional and empty threats may satisfy the elements of criminal threats in the state.
Conditional threats are the kinds of intimidations whose communication comes with a condition. Example: a person who threatens another that they will kill them after getting out of incarceration. If there is a condition on that threat, and the threat satisfies all the other elements provided under this criminal offense, the court may still find you guilty of criminal threats. California courts have accepted conditional threats as real criminal threats presented that their context communicates to the threatened person that they could be carried out.
Conditional threats are sometimes a type of blackmail or extortion, depending on the underlying circumstances. If the court agrees that the criminal threats were indeed used to blackmail or extort the victim, the offender could face additional penalties as provided under Section 518 of California Statutes.
The conditional threat could also be made with some sense of resolve and with a possibility of execution if the defendant' does not meet his/her condition. In that case, the court will find him/her guilty of criminal threats. The prosecutor will seek to establish that the conditional threat was designed to achieve something, that the defendant hopes to achieve so they cannot carry out the threat.
Example: If a critical witness receives threats against testifying in court, the court will have to accept that the threat is indeed a criminal threat, punishable under Section 422 of California Laws.
Empty threats are, however, treated differently in California. If a person issues out an empty threat, it means that they have no intention of carrying out that threat. Sometimes people issue out empty threats as a way to scare others and not to threaten them. However, there are instances when such threats can be taken as criminal threats. If an empty threat is issued out credibly to the extent that a recipient receives it as a threat; the recipient will reasonably believe that the offender intends to execute it. In that case, the offender may be found guilty of criminal threats under California laws.
Penalties for California Criminal Threats
The crime of criminal threats in California is a wobbler. For this reason, the prosecutor will charge it as either a felony or a misdemeanor based on the circumstances of the case and the defendant's criminal history. The judge has complete discretion in deciding how to convict the case.
If you get a misdemeanor conviction, the penalties you are likely to get are a maximum fine of $1000, and/or a maximum period of one year in jail
If the offender receives a felony conviction, the offender can face a maximum of three years in prison and receive a fine of $10,000 as a maximum.
If the offender used a dangerous or deadly weapon to issue out the threat, they could face additional penalties. These are, for instance, an extra one year in prison, which should be carried out consecutively with the felony penalties.
Likewise, if you issued criminal threats:
- More than once
- Against more than one person, or
- For different purposes
You will be penalized for every threat you have communicated, and for every person you have threatened.
California's Three Strikes Law
A criminal threat that is convicted as a felony is a strike in the state of California under the state's Three-Strike law. What this means is that such a crime is considered a severe offense. If you have a previous strike on your record, and then you are charged with any felony, your current crime will be considered as a second striker. What this means is that the sentence will be twice the term that is mandated by law.
Anyone that gets a third felony, and they have two previous strikes on their criminal record; the third felony will be called a third striker. For this, the offender will receive a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 25 years or a life sentence in prison.
A criminal threat offense is considered a strike under California laws. For this reason, the offender will be required to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they can petition the court for a release on parole.
Additional Penalties under Section 422 of California Laws
The crime of criminal threats is considered an offense of moral turpitude. Such crimes are those that are seen to be overly offensive and unacceptable when compared to other crimes. Based on this, a criminal threats offender may face additional penalties such as the following of found guilty of the offense:
- A professional discipline, which means that a criminal threat conviction can affect your professional permits
- Deportation if you are legal migrant or removal from the country if you are an alien
Possible Defenses for California Criminal Threats
From the discussion above, the crime of criminal threats is a severe one in California. Therefore, if you are facing such charges, it is advisable to try hard to fight them. It is possible to do so with the help of a competent criminal defense attorney. To find you guilty, the prosecutor will seek to satisfy the above-explained elements. Fortunately, there are legal defenses that a smart criminal defense attorney can use in your case to convince the court to either reduce or drop your charges. Some of these are
False accusations are familiar with crimes that are considered severe in California. Convicting a person of criminal threats does not involve proving that they caused physical injuries on their victims.
For this reason, so many people can falsely accuse others of such an offense out of vengeance, spite, jealousy or even trying to cover up their liability. False accusations can happen if the alleged offense was committed through verbal utterances and not through an electronic recording or a written message. An experienced criminal defense attorney can dig out facts to prove that you are not guilty of the charges.
The threats were not immediate
Your lawyer can convince the court that you did not convey the threat in a manner that suggested immediate execution. If successful, this could help defend you against the criminal threats charges. If the argument is accepted, then the offense will not be charged as criminal threats. Remember that for the charges to hold, the issued warning must be clear, immediate, specific, and unconditional.
However, it is essential to note that a possibility for immediate execution does not mean that the offender intended to complete the threat at that instant. It means that the execution was close as long as the victim did not comply with the defendant's demands.
If the threat was vague, with no sense of the time it might be executed; this vagueness might be used as a defense to have your charges reduced or dropped.
The threats were ambiguous or vague
Again, the kinds of threats that the court can charge as criminal threats are those that are unambiguous. If the threat was not very clear and not specific, you might not face the charges for criminal threats. A criminal threat will have a particular time or the precise manner in which it will be executed. The circumstances surrounding the threat should also be able to make its meaning and intent clear. If not, it will not be taken as so, and the offender will not face criminal threats charges.
Your attorney might be able to convince the court that the threat was not a crime if it did not have the circumstances expected to go with a criminal threat.
The victim was not fearful
A criminal threat is expected to create an immense fear in the victim to the point of changing something in their life to protect themselves. If therefore, the victim did not get scared, it could be because they believed that the offender was joking or that the offender was incapable of carrying out the threat. If the two cases are correct, then the threat will not be taken as a violation, and the offender will not be guilty of criminal threats.
Again, your attorney should be able to describe the behavior of the victim after the threat was issued, to convince the court that the threat did not scare him/her. If the defense is accepted, the court might drop your charges
The threat or the victim's fear was unreasonable
The victim could have gotten scared after the threat but was the fear reasonable? If not, the court should acquit you of the criminal threat charges. Remember that among the elements of this crime is the element of reasonable fear in the victim. The fear should also be real. If these two requirements are not satisfied, then you are not guilty of the charges.
Note that this does not depend on whether the victim got scared, but as long as their fear was unreasonable, you will not be found guilty of the offense.
Example: Suppose a person threatens another that they will run over them with a plane, while in actual sense, the offender is not even a pilot. It will not make sense for the victim to fear such a threat and believe that the person can carry out the threat.
The threat is a free speech
The constitution protects certain utterances as free speech in California, mainly those that a person makes when they are angry or ranting. Your attorney should be able to convince the court that your threat falls under this category of utterances for your charges to be dropped. However, protected free speech does not cause fear in other people.
Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
A conviction of criminal threats will have devastating effects on all aspects of your life, including your career, and social life. For that reason, you should find the best criminal defense attorney to help you fight the charges and have them dropped or reduced to a more lenient charge. The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney comprises of well-trained and experienced criminal defense attorneys. These will take up your case, take you through the legal process, advice, and also defend you in the trial. Call us at 310-564-2605 and let us work together to ensure that your rights are protected throughout the case.
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