Criminal threats are acts of intentionally threatening to cause harm to someone with the knowledge that the victim will sustain fear for their safety. Notwithstanding, you can land yourself into court for this offense out of false accusations or protected free speeches. Hence, legal representation is critical in these cases. Vista Criminal Attorney Law Firm is ready to represent you in your case throughout Vista, CA and North County.

Definition of a Criminal Threat in California

A criminal threat is defined under penal code 422 of California law. When a person causes someone to sustain fear, either of physical or emotional harm, that person is said to have committed a criminal threat. Simply put, a criminal threat is any act that places one in a state of fear. The threat should be specific to a particular deed and the accuser might have sustained a fear to lose their belonging. The accused is always treated from a neutral perspective with the sense that anyone can commit or execute a criminal threat. The law also considers whether the criminal threat was initiated out of intention. Regardless of whether the accused meant to cause actual harm or not, the mode of communication plays a significant role, and the referred threat could be communicated either verbally, by electronic means, or in writing. The law as well assumes that there must have been a predefined prospect prior to initiating the threat.

There are times that criminal threats are made against the masses. Recent media has been filled with news about mass shootings and terrorist bombings. Executors of these heinous acts may threaten to commit the crimes before executing them. When such a criminal threat is imposed, law enforcement comes into play to protect the public. Security agencies take charge to prevent the threat prospect from happening. On the event that the perpetrators are arrested, they are charged for the offense of criminal threats. When law enforcement agencies fail to curb the heinous acts from taking place, even after a threat has been initiated, the government may fall under public ridicule and criticism. Therefore, Civil liability is also possible to cater for any damages and hospitalization of injured victims.

The pressures on governments and investigators to take an action in case there is a criminal threat arising from the belief that this criminal offense would have been committed in case the agencies took no action. For instance, a person may impose a terrorist threat against the public. A follow up by law enforcement would result to arrest of the person. Perhaps the enforcement agency would make a search in the person's apartment and find weapons meant to initiate an attack. In which case, the offense of a criminal threat would result in additional criminal charges.

Five conditions must be met for an offense to qualify as a criminal threat. It is based upon these elements that the prosecution can remain relevant in a court of law.

  1. There was willfulness to commit the threat and the defendant had the intent to cause actual injury or harm to the plaintiff;
  2. The threat was executed either in writing, verbally, or by electronic means;
  3. The defendant presently had the ability to initiate the threat;
  4. The defendant intended that the communication of the threat was clear to the person being threatened and would be understood in the process;
  5. The defendant caused a reasonable person to sustain fear of their safety or the safety of his/her property.

Examples of criminal threats would entail;

  • Terrorizing the public
  • Causing inconvenience in a public facility
  • Being ignorant and reckless of the implications of causing public inconvenience
  • Evacuating a public facility, in the means of transport or a building

There are types of threats that never qualify as criminal offenses. An example includes vague threats, which could not cause fear to a reasonable person. Such a threat that could not automatically sustain fear is said to have either been ambiguous, lacked immediacy, or was conditional.

Types of Threats

Conditional Threats

A threat should be actionable in order to qualify as a criminal threat. Some threats may not cause reasonable fear. Basing upon the argument of immediacy, a threat may be conditioned upon an event that is not certain to happen in the near future. For instance, threatening to kill your girlfriend's future husband if it won't be you. In this incident, the girlfriend may not have a reasonable cause to fear because she is not yet married. The threat is conditioned upon the girlfriend having a husband, and because the event has not yet happened, the possibility of initiating the threat is put to question. The attorney, in this case, can argue that the threat is therefore not actionable.

Ambiguous Threats

For a threat to qualify as a true criminal threat, it must have clear meaning to the intended recipient, with a specific meaning to its audience. Otherwise, the threat would be vague. A vague threat may fail to satisfy the full provisions of penal code 422. Criminal threats are believed to graduate from ambiguous threats. The fact holds true to most homicide cases where the act of harm just began from a simple and vague statement as ‘‘you better take caution with how you speak to me.’’ The vagueness of the threat may become explicit and clearly defined with time, when for instance, a lover boldly furnishes, ‘‘If you do not want me, I will have to kill you.’’

It is critical to analyze the facts from homicides to prove that there exists a similar progression of a vague threat with time. The defendant may have progressed the threat so as to escalate the victim's fear. Despite the fact that an ambiguous threat may not be charged in court, graduating the threat over time may cause dire consequences to the defendant. Most homicide convicts claim that escalating a threat from ambiguous to violent psyched them up to cause actual harm. On the other hand, legal experts have questioned the reasonability of terming threats as ambiguous. The argument lies in the fact that it is rather pragmatic to not only recognize words as a potential lead to a heinous attack but also as potential plans to cause harm in future. The reasonability of ambiguity in criminal threats is far debated but in the context of various criminal cases.

Ambiguous threats may be coded in veiled statements so as to cause fear in a victim. In such an incident, it would be impossible to convict the defendant on legal grounds. A veiled threat has the potential to cause fear to the victim but its meaning may remain obscured to a prosecutor. It is also difficult to report threat cases to law enforcers due to fear of actual harm being initiated. To be precise, a death threat may cause the victim to remain silent in fear of being killed. However, it is possible to convict the defendant where someone else overheard the threat.

A person expressing a criminal threat causes either of three levels of fear to the victim. The level of fear is critically weighed to determine whether the threat is a criminal offense. Putting the levels of fear into consideration helps to determine whether the victim actually threatened. The following are three levels of fear that result from a criminal threat.

  1. Actual Fear – The victim may consider an expressed threat as very serious. As a result, the victim goes into hiding, flies to another country, or purchases security equipment to stay safe. Actual fear, in this case, is characterized by a creeping sense of being harmed, danger, and anxiety. However, the fear, in this case, is only perceived from the utterance of the defendant. But the victim remains in fear despite having no basis whether actual harm will take place or not;

  2. Reasonable Fear – The victim could consider that a threat made is simple to execute. However, the threat must not be carried out immediately to be considered reasonable. For instance, a student threatens to burn down a school. Within no time, you notice the student purchasing burning materials from a local shop. In this case, the level of fear caused is referred to as reasonable fear;

  3. Sustained Fear – A victim may be threatened in such a way that they experience fear for more than one fleeting moment. For instance, someone following you down a hallway holding a pocket knife and threatens to stab you. Once you navigate a corridor, you realize that the person is not following you anymore. In this case, the kind of fear experienced is called sustained fear. It is obvious that the victim felt afraid, fearful, and threatened throughout the entire event. It is important to also note that the fear could prolong even after the ordeal.

Attorneys argue that sustained fear is the only basis of a criminal threat. The law requires that the victim should have felt fear for more than a fleeting moment for the threat to hold true. Meanwhile, the judge or jury tends to link the fear of a threat to the possibility of harm in the near future. Nevertheless, the prosecutor should establish that there had been some level of confrontation between the victim and the defendant before expressing the threat.

A Noteworthy fact is that a short-lived threat cannot be charged as a criminal threat. The threat, therefore, might be so insignificant that the victim forgets it had ever been made. In this case, the defendant cannot be charged thereafter. The argument to this lies within the element that the resultant fear must be progressive, lasting, and therefore, not momentarily.

Penalties for Criminal Threats Offenses

A criminal threat under California law is considered a Wobbler. The prosecutor determines whether to charge a criminal threat as a felony or as a misdemeanor depending on various circumstances such as the defendant's prior criminal background.

There is a major contrast between being charged with a felony or a misdemeanor criminal threat. Below is an outline of each case depending on the situation surrounding the criminal threat.

Misdemeanor Criminal Threat

A misdemeanor criminal threat is a threat that is not considered serious by a court of law. It carries a jail sentence of up to one year and a court fine of up to $1000. California penal code 422 requires a criminal threat convict to pay restitution of costs caused to the victim. The restitution is heavily placed on top of court fines, thereby increasing the financial burden on the convicted person.

Felony Criminal Threat

A felony criminal threat is punishable by up to three years in state prison. The court may impose fines ranging up to $10,000. For a criminal threat to be punished as a felony, it has to be serious, for example, directed to more than one person or poses significant loses if executed. California law imposes an additional year into the sentence in case the defendant used a weapon to express the threat. The law provides that the additional year should follow consecutively the normal sentence.

Felony criminal threats are classified under California's three strikes law. The three strikes law requires that the judge doubles the punishment on the event that the defendant has a prior criminal threat offense. After committing a first felony criminal threat, the law refers to the defendant as a first striker. After the second time of committing a criminal threat, he/she is called a second striker. A second striker will face twice as much the penalty that a first striker will face. A third striker is, on the other hand, may be sentenced into state prison for 25 years. To be eligible for a parole release, a strike felony is required to have served 80% to 85% of their complete sentence.

Related Offences to Criminal Threats

Brandishing firearms or weapons

The offense is defined under penal code 417 PC. The code prohibits against exhibiting a sinister weapon or a firearm. Brandishing a weapon in a threatening, angry, and rude manner, could potentially attract prosecution. The crime is categorized under California Gun laws and seeks to control how people use firearms and weapons.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is described under penal code 242 of California state laws. The laws are aimed towards protecting civilians from intimate relationship harm or familial violence. There are types of relationships that guarantee a criminal act to be in violation of domestic violence laws. California penal code outlines the relationships as former cohabitant or current cohabitant, former or current spouse, a parent, a guardian, or partners that are dating. The circumstances of an act of domestic violence determine the path a prosecution will take. The severity, seriousness, and extent of harm caused are also key determinants of the charges and penalty.

Possible Defenses for Criminal Threats

As mentioned above, a criminal threat has to comply with four elements to qualify as a criminal offense. Attorneys take advantage of these four elements to stage successful defenses for the accused. The attorney could also pitch a valid defense based on whether the threat caused reasonable fear; was communicated verbally, electronically, or in writing.

The threat is not specific and is ambiguous. The attorney has an upper hand to come up with a defense that could foresee the court dropping charges. To be specific, the threat should in all manner fulfill the provisions of penal code 422. Considering that a person is not guilty when the threat is ambiguous, not specific, not immediate, and fails to cause fear to the victim, the charges could be dismissed.

In some cases, the threat may be termed as unreasonable. The victim could be threatened but the fear caused is unreasonable. For instance, the possibility of a threat taking place could be minimal. Therefore, when the defendant is able to prove that they actually threatened the victim, but there was no possibility of executing the threat, the judge could dismiss the case.

There are times that the defendant faces a trial based on false accusations. The attorney could demand a record of the uttered threat in case it was verbally committed. Failure for the plaintiff to provide such records is a primary sign of possible false and baseless accusations. Consequently, the proofs pressed by the prosecutors would not be enough to guarantee a conviction, and the court can dismiss such cases on the basis of false accusations.

Protected free speech could also be a foundation of pitching a successful defense. A protected free speech is any verbal communication that is against censorship and regulation. However, the defense team must satisfactorily prove that the threat was an act of free speech, and posed no potential execution.

Find a Vista Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me                         

If a criminal threats charge is awaiting you, experienced lawyers of Vista Criminal Attorney Law Firm are ready to help you. With successful legal representation for clients in Vista California and North County, you can count on us in case you are facing this offense or any other charges. Give us a call today at 760-691-1551 to get a customized legal representation.