Understanding California's Criminal Threats Law
The United States Constitution affords you Freedom of Speech. However, there are some ways in which a person's words can cause them to suffer legal consequences. California Penal Code 422 outlines the law regarding criminal threats.
A person who violates the state's laws against criminal threats can face felony charges. The impact on a person's life can be devastating, even if that person never intended to carry out any acts of violence. While threats can amount to a crime, not every instance of harsh or insulting language is an illegal activity. Anyone facing potential allegations of violating 422 PC should understand what kind of language may amount to a crime.
How Does the Law Define Criminal Threats?
There are several elements that courts must consider when determining whether a person is guilty of violating California's criminal threats law. In general, the language must express the intent to carry out acts of physical violence, including severe bodily harm or death, against another person. The elements of the crime are as follows:
· Statements made verbally, in writing, or through an electronic communication
· Words that convey specific, immediate, unconditional, and unequivocal threats
· The recipient of the words reasonably fears for their own safety or the safety of their immediate family
A careful reader might notice that the law does not require that the person making the threats have any intent to carry out the act. The words themselves are the crime. Also, the alleged victim's state of mind is one of the necessary elements of the crime. Even if the words convey the specific, immediate, unconditional, unequivocal intent to harm another person, if the other person does not experience fear, a court will not be able to convict the accused.
Some examples of threats that may rise to the level of a crime in California include:
· A person threatening to stab another person while the perpetrator is holding a knife
· A person who frequently carries a gun threatening to shoot someone
· A person writing their ex-spouse and threatening to burn down their home
When it comes to complicated relationships, people sometimes say things in the heat of the moment that they do not mean. However, if that statement adds up to a criminal threat, the speaker may even face time in prison.
How Can a Person Defend Against Allegations of Criminal Threats?
There are many ways that a person can defend against criminal threat allegations. The following arguments are common defense strategies:
The threat could not reasonably have caused the other person to experience fear: If one person threatens to beat the other person using a wet noodle, the person hearing those words would not likely be reasonable in their belief that the other person intended to harm them.
The person who heard the words did not truly experience fear: Even if the threat could have induced fear, if the person was not afraid, this can serve as a defense. For instance, imagine that a couple gets into a heated argument. The speaker threatens to stab their significant other and then leaves and attempts to cut contact with the other person. The recipient of the threat then writes multiple apologies for starting the fight and repeatedly attempts to get back in touch with the other person. If evidence suggests that the recipient never believed the threat or experienced fear, this can serve as a defense.
The threat lacked specificity: Perhaps the speaker said, "You'll regret what you did to me. I'll make sure you regret it." The threat does not include any specifics and is likely too vague to qualify as a criminal threat. Different listeners could come up with many ways to interpret the above statement, some of which might be unnerving, but none could indicate a clear intent to cause a specific type of harm.
The speaker did not use words to convey the threat: Perhaps the alleged victim believes that the other person was looking at them menacingly while chopping vegetables. The incident could have caused someone to feel uneasy, but the person made no actual verbal threat.
The alleged victim only felt fear for a moment: Imagine that a threat only caused the person to feel a momentary fear before realizing that the speaker would not actually carry out the threatened actions. In that case, the speaker can defend themselves against the charges because the law requires that any threat leave the alleged victim in a state of sustained fear.
The accused never made alleged statements: Like most crimes, there is a chance of mistaken identity or false allegations. Sometimes a person might seek vengeance on a former partner by making a false allegation of abuse of criminal threats. These types of scenarios may happen in contentious relationships or when parties are going through a divorce.
Free speech: Courts are reluctant to penalize speech and recognize that in many cases, the statements are simply an expression of strong emotions and not a true intent to carry out the acts. Sometimes determining whether the statements were examples of protected speech or an illegal threat will come down to a detailed analysis of the context in which they made the relevant statements.
Misdemeanors, Felonies, and Criminal Histories in Criminal Threat Cases
The sentence a person may face if you are convicted of making criminal threats will vary depending on many different factors. For instance, if the defendant has prior criminal convictions, the three strikes law can kick in and lead to much longer sentences than otherwise.
Prosecutors can choose to pursue either misdemeanor or felony charges. The facts of the case, such as if the person has a criminal history and the circumstances and severity of the threat, will influence that decision. It is also possible for prosecutors to file multiple charges for separate statements.
Some factors that make prosecutors take a threat more seriously include whether the accused made numerous threats against the alleged victim, if the incident relates to a hate crime, if the threats involve domestic violence, and if the person making the threats had possession of a deadly weapon at the time.
If prosecutors pursue misdemeanor charges, the potential sentence can include up to a year in jail, as well as a $1,000 fine. For felony cases, the sentence can be for up to three years and a $10,000 fine. However, the use of a deadly weapon can lead to an extra year behind bars.
As mentioned, criminal threats will count as a "strike" for California's three strikes provisions. Under that law, a second strike will lead to the court doubling the sentence, while a third strike can result in a minimum 25-year sentence.
Facing criminal allegations can be frightening. Anyone accused of a criminal act needs to remember that they are innocent until proven guilty and have the right to a lawyer.