In the state of California, the making of criminal threats is treated as a very serious crime. Not long ago, this crime was labeled “terrorist threats,” and though the name of the offense has been changed, the magnitude of the crime in the eyes of the law has not been at all diminished. Considering the grave consequences of a conviction on allegations of criminal threatening in California, it is imperative that those defending against these charges obtain the assistance of an experience lawyer. Ann Gottesman has been successfully handling criminal threats cases in Pasadena, L.A., and Southern California for many years, and her law firm stands ready to come to your aid if you are facing these charges.
Definition of Criminal Threats
California Penal Code Section 422 defines criminal threats as any and all threats made for the purpose of causing another person to fear either death or serious bodily injury.
In accordance with the law’s definition, a prosecutor would have to show the following elements to prove a criminal threat occurred:
- The defendant did, in fact, willfully threaten to illegally kill or inflict great bodily injury upon another person.
- The defendant made a threatening oral statement or communicated a threat by some other means.
- The defendant intended the receiver of the communication to take it as a threat. This can be done in person or via a messenger.
- The threat was sufficiently clear, specific, and immediate that the person at whom it was directed understood its nature and believed it would actually be carried out.
- The threat caused the person to fear for himself, his family member, friend, or other loved one.
- The words or gestures of the communication, within their specific circumstances, would reasonably be interpreted as a threat.
Who Can Be Convicted on Charges of Criminal Threats?
In general, proving all elements of the legal definition of a criminal threat will lead to conviction. However, there are also various “legal theories” under which prosecutors pursue a conviction, including the following:
- The defendant terrorized another person.
- The defendant’s actions caused a building, public assembly, or public transportation facility to be evacuated.
- The defendant caused major inconvenience to those affected by his communication.
- The defendant showed reckless disregard for the panic or intimidation that his actions would likely result in.
It is important to remember that a vague, conditional, or non-immediate threat that could not reasonably cause one to fear for his safety does not count as a criminal threat in California.
Criminal threats can be made verbally, in writing, or electronically. You can be convicted of a felony criminal threats charge even if you were not the one to communicate the threat to the victim!
For example, if you ask your friend Tom to call your ex-girlfriend Sara and tell her that you are on your way to her home and you have a gun and are planning to shoot her and her new boyfriend, you can still be charged with violating Penal Code section 422 because you communicated your threat to the victim through a third person.
Defenses to the Charge of Criminal Threats
If for example, the threat that was made was vague and not specific enough, or if the alleged victim could not reasonably have been in fear for his or her safety, then you have not committed the crime of a criminal threat as defined by Penal Code section 422.
Also, if the alleged victim was not in sustained fear, but rather, was scared for only a very brief moment, (or not at all!) this would also be a viable defense to the charge of criminal or terrorist threats.
Interestingly, the statute requires the threat be conveyed verbally, in writing or electronically, so if you did not convey a threat in that manner (i.e., you made a hand gesture), this too would be a defense.
Of course, sometimes the alleged victim is making up a story and not telling the truth. When false allegations are made, it will often times come down to the accuser’s credibility in from of a jury.
In 2015, in the case of ELONIS v. UNITED STATES, the US Supreme Court ruled on the issue of specific intent with respect to a federal criminal threats statute. The Court ruled that the government has to show more than a defendant was negligent in making a statement or writing that was perceived by the victim as a threat…the defendant must have had specific intent to cause the victim fear. The Court finds that “Section 875(c)’s mental state requirement is satisfied if the defendant transmits a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat.”
While California’s criminal threats statute did not require the defendant to specifically intend to cause fear when making the threat prior to this US Supreme Court ruling in June of 2015, state court Judges are likely to now require the prosecutor to prove, as an element of the offense, that the Defendant intended to actually communicate a threat.
Possible Penalties for Criminal Threats
Under PC 422, all those convicted of criminal threatening must pay financial restitution for any costs that their threat incurred on others. A prosecutor will push for as high a restitution amount as possible, but an experienced defense attorney will understand the law and be able to counter excessive or illegitimate restitution claims.
Criminal threats is a “wobbler,” which can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The severity of the charge will vary with the severity of the allegations and the defendant’s past criminal record. A misdemeanor conviction can get you up to one year in the county jail, while a felony conviction can be punished with up to four years in state prison.
California recently made felony-level criminal threats a “strike” under the state Three Strikes Law. These convictions now result in a permanent criminal record, heavy fines, and long-term parole or probation. Once there are three “serious felonies” of PC 1192.7(c) status on your record, (or a combination of "serious" and "violent" felony convictions) there is a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison, and a life sentence is possible. All such convicts must serve at least 80% to 85% of their terms before they are eligible for release.
Possible Penalty Enhancements
Additional “enhancements” that can apply to certain criminal threats cases include the following:
- Enhancement for Armed Commission of a Felony: According to PC 12022(a)(1), use of a dangerous weapon while committing a felony will increase prison sentences by a full year.
- The Additional Charge of Dissuading a Victim or Witness: PC 136.1 makes threatening to kill or seriously injure a witness or victim to keep him from testifying in court as distinct crime.
- The Street Gang Enhancement: PC 186.22 addresses threats made for the benefit of a gang and assigns additional prison time of 5 years, 10 years, or 25 years to life for a violation.
- The Additional Charge of Domestic Battery: In accordance with PC 243(e)(1), willful use of force or fear to inflict harm on an “intimate partner” can be punished by a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
Expert Legal Defense Against Criminal Threats Charges
If you have been arrested, charged, or are under investigation for criminal threats in Pasadena, L.A. County, El Monte, Alhambra, West Covina, Glendale, Altadena, or other nearby localities, you need an experienced and compassionate attorney to represent you in court and fight to protect your freedom and constitutional rights. Call Pasadena criminal attorney Ann Gottesman for a FREE consultation. Ann cares about her clients and fights tirelessly to ensure the best possible results in court.
For further information about California criminal threats law or about the various possible defense strategies for defending against these allegations, contact Ann Gottesman today at 626-710-4021. You can call Ann for help anytime day or night and she will talk to you directly.