California Law on Criminal Threats

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Often, the news is plagued with stories about terroristic attacks, mass shootings, intentional mass poisonings and other violent attacks. Sometimes a perpetrator threatens such action before committing the underlying act. Law enforcement agencies may come in receipt of such considered plans and may be able to take action when these threats are being made. A criminal defense lawyer can explain criminal threats and when a person may be convicted of such charges.

Criminal Threat

California criminalizes the act of threatening to commit a crime that will result in death or great bodily harm to someone else when the threat is intended to be considered such. A criminal threat may be made verbally, in writing or through electronic means, which includes communication via phones, computers, fax machines, pagers or video recorders under California law. The definition of criminal threats includes threats that are made by someone who does not actually intend to carry out the threat. If it is reasonably possible under the circumstances that the defendant can carry out the threat and there are no conditions on the threat, it may be considered criminal threat. If the victim reasonably believes that it is possible for the defendant to carry out the threat and that his or her own safety or that of his or her own immediate family is in danger, the defendant can face charges for criminal threat.

If convicted, the defendant can face up to one year in the county jail or be imprisoned in the state prison system.

Law Enforcement Response
There have been a number of recent mass shootings and other killings in recent years. Law enforcement may respond quickly with little evidence when such threats are made in an attempt to protect the public. If the law enforcement agency does not respond promptly to these allegations and if tragedy strikes, it may be subject to ridicule and possibly civil liability.
There are many threats made against schools, and law enforcement often responds to these threats. Defendants may make a threatening post on social media, call in threats or may make statements overhead in hallways or other locations. Law enforcement may arrest this person and may find guns on the defendantís person or in his or her home. After finding these weapons, defendants may find themselves charged with additional crimes relating to the weapons.

Ambiguous Threats

In some instances, the threats may not be as direct. For example, one person in California was arrested by having a picture of a gun with the name of a school on it posted to his social media account. This type of case may not fulfill all of the requirements of the criminal threat statute. The legal requirement of a criminal threat is that it is made with the specific intent to be taken as a threat. Sometimes children will write threats about wanting to bomb or commit other violent crimes in the school. These threats may not be specific or may be made with a lack of judgment. Threats that are made via a gesture, such as a hand motion, are also not considered a criminal threat. In one case heard in front of the California Supreme Court, a defendant made a gang sign and made a gesture like a gun pointed upward. The defendantís lawyer filed to dismiss the action because these actions did not rise to the criminal conduct in the statute. The California Supreme Court agreed and dismissed the charge. Unless the legislature changes the wording of the criminal threat statute, this is currently how the law is interpreted and does not include gestures.

Help from a Criminal Defense Lawyer in California

Individuals who are facing charges for criminal threats may wish to consider contacting an experienced California criminal defense lawyer for assistance. A criminal defense lawyer may examine the nature of the evidence against you and determine if there are any challenges that can be made regarding this evidence. The prosecutor may be missing an element of the crime to be able to successfully prosecute you. For example, he or she may not be able to produce testimony or other evidence that shows any threat made in writing or made verbally. A gestured threat is not enough to currently secure a conviction under California law. A criminal defense lawyer can also help establish that some innocuous statement made by a person would not have put a reasonable person in fear of harm. A criminal defense lawyer can attack the evidence used against the defendant.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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