Sometimes we say things that we regret. This may be especially true for things said in the heat of the moment. Did you know that uttering threats – even if you do not intend to follow through – could be a criminal offense in California?
California is tough on crime and takes criminal threats very seriously. Formerly known as the “terrorist threats” law, California’s criminal threats statute makes it illegal – in most situations – to make threats of death or great bodily harm or death against another person.
If you have been charged with criminal threats in California it is extremely important to contact an experienced San Diego criminal defense attorney immediately. Given the nature of the crime it is also imperative that you exercise your right to remain silent. This means only speaking to police to request the counsel of an attorney and to explicitly advise them of your decision to exercise your Constitutional right.
An experienced criminal threats attorney will help to explain the charges, investigate your case, and determine the best strategy for a defense. While an arrest and/or charges for criminal threats may seem to be a minor offense, the consequences stemming from a conviction can cripple your future. At the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC, we can help to ensure that your rights are protected and that the prosecution is forced to prove each and every element of the crime.
Understanding Criminal Threats
In California, it is generally a crime to threaten another person with immediate bodily harm and/or death. However, there are many elements of this seemingly straightforward crime – each of which must be proven by the prosecution for a conviction. Given that this is a crime that requires (and is based on) some form of communication, rather than a physical act, proving each element of the offense can prove to be difficult. An experienced criminal attorney can help to cast doubt on the prosecution’s case and your guilt – thereby increasing your odds for a plea bargain, reduced charges, or walking away scot free.
A conviction of criminal threats under California Penal Code 422 PC requires the prosecution to prove:
- The defendant willfully threatened to commit a crime that would result in the bodily harm or death of another person;
- The threat was made verbally, in writing, or electronically;
- The defendant intended that the threat be taken seriously, regardless of intent to carry out the crime;
- The threat, under the circumstances it is made, is unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific so as to reasonably instill fear in a victim; and
- As a result of the threat, the victim reasonably sustained fear for his or her immediate safety.
In sum, you can be charged and convicted of a criminal threat if you (1) threaten great bodily harm, (2) verbally, in writing, or electronically, (3) intend for the threat to be taken seriously and instill fear in another person, (4) the threat is not vague, and (5) the target of your threat is reasonably fearful of his or her safety.
It is important to understand that you can be charged and convicted of criminal threats even if you have no intention of carrying out your threat. The fact that you intended to (and succeeded in) cause(ing) fear through a verbal, written, or electronic communication is sufficient. The circumstances under which a person may be charged with criminal threats can vary significantly.
Examples of instances when you may be charged with criminal threats include:
- Texting a former spouse or partner and threatening to hurt them or their children by poisoning their food, setting fire to their home, or entering at night with a weapon;
- Telling an employer that you plan to “burn the place to the ground” after you’ve been fired;
- Exchanging heated words with another driver after a car accident and telling them that you’re going to kill them for damaging your car; and
- If you are being arrested on gang or drug-related charges and begin to shout specific threats (“I will kill you!” “You better watch your back!” “I know where your family lives!”) at the person who allegedly ratted you out to the police.
Defenses to Charges of Criminal Threats
When you contact an experienced criminal threats defense attorney they will investigate each and every detail of the circumstances surrounding your arrest and the alleged threat(s). Not only does this allow your attorney to understand what did happen, it also gives them an opportunity to understand what did not happen. Your attorney will take apart the prosecution’s case piece by piece and hunt for weaknesses and holes that can be exacerbated. Your attorney will hone on in the details that could mean the difference between serious time behind bars and getting the charges dropped. Possible defenses that your attorney may try to find evidence to support (or prove that the prosecution lacks evidence to support) include:
- The communication you made was not intended to be taken as a threat;
- The alleged threat would not have put a reasonable person in fear;
- The victim was not fearful after the alleged threat;
- The alleged threat of harm was not unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, nor specific;
- The alleged threat of harm was not communicated verbally, in writing, or electronically;
- The alleged threat was merely a physical gesture, unaccompanied by words;
- The accusation of the alleged threat is false; or
- The alleged threat is Constitutionally protected free speech.
Penalties for a Conviction of Criminal Threats
The crime of criminal threats is what is known as a wobbler in California. This means that the crime can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The prosecution is empowered with discretion to charge the crime at the level they deem to be appropriate. Factors that will be considered in determining whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony include:
- Your own personal criminal record and criminal history; and
- The specific facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged threat(s).
If you are charged with misdemeanor criminal threats you may face up to one year in county jail, if convicted. If you are charged with felony criminal threats you may face up to four years in prison, if convicted. There are also certain circumstances that may cause these sentences to be longer:
- Multiple Counts: if threats are made on more than one occasion, against more than one person, and/or in the pursuit of different objectives, you may be charged with multiple counts of the crime. Each count would be subject to its own sentence.
- Deadly or Dangerous Weapon: if threats are made while wielding a deadly or dangerous weapon a felony sentence may be increased to up to five years in prison.
Regardless of whether criminal threats is charged as a misdemeanor or felony offense, a conviction still counts as a ‘strike’ for California’s Three Strikes Law. This means that at least 85% of a sentence must be served before a person convicted of the crime would be eligible for early release.
Criminal threats is what is known as a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT) in California, meaning that the offense is considered to be more offensive than other crimes. If convicted, you could also face non-criminal consequences due to the morally reprehensible nature of the crime. These may include professional discipline, including revocation of professional licenses, deportation, and/or lawful removal of legal immigrants.
Protect Yourself With an Experienced Criminal Threats Defense Attorney
Don’t let a comment made in the heat of the moment significantly change your life. Even though the charges may seem silly or unimportant, a conviction could have serious consequences including jail time, monetary fines, and even deportation.
If you have been arrested and/or charged with criminal threats, contact our experienced San Diego criminal threats defense attorneys as soon as possible. We will investigate the circumstances surrounding your alleged threat, pinpoint and highlight weaknesses in the case against you, and launch a well-researched and thought-out legal defense. There are many elements to this seemingly simple crime, which can prove to be beneficial for a defendant.
At the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC, our attorneys understand how to use the prosecution’s weaknesses to our client’s advantage. Contact us today for a free consultation to learn about how we may be able to help you fight the criminal threats charges pending against you.