Controlling one’s emotions is one the hardest aspects of being human, especially the strong emotions of anger and jealousy. At some point, almost everyone loses their temper and says or does something they later regret. Most of the time these momentary lapses in judgment do have serious consequences, but sometimes, criminal charges may result. Anytime criminal charges are possible, a criminal defense attorney should be the first point of contact to address this serious situation. Not every threat will subject a person to potential criminal prosecution, but it is important to understand where the lines are legally drawn. This offense, known as a criminal threat under California penal law, may appear to be easily understood, and thus avoided, but the California Supreme Court recently issued a decision about the applicability of criminal threat charges to nonverbal behavior, which shows that even seemingly simple crimes have nuances that control when someone may be found guilty. A discussion on what a criminal threat is, the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, and some defenses available to combat this charge will follow below.
What is a criminal threat?
The U.S. Constitution grants all citizens the right to free speech, so the government cannot arbitrarily restrict what someone is allowed to say. However, some limitations are permitted if the speech involves statements that can lead to the harm of another. In the case of criminal threats,California law says it is a crime to:
- intentionally threaten to kill or seriously harm another person, in which:
- the statement, which can be communicated verbally, in writing or electronically, was meant to be understood as a threat;
- the statement was so “unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific,” it suggested the immediate ability to carry it out; and
- the person threatened reasonably feared for his/her safety or the safety of his/her family.
All of these factors, or elements in legal terms, must be proven by the prosecution in order to convict a person of this offense.
Supreme Court Decision
Looking at the elements, the method of communication required to qualify as a criminal threat seems clear – spoken, written or electronic. However, prosecutors recently decided to charge a man with this offense solely based on hand gestures. Specifically, the man charged was supposed to have made the hand sign of a particular gang, followed by the shape of a gun, which was then pointed at an off-duty police officer and his friends. The court said the law, based on the plain language of the statute, does not include nonverbal hand gestures under its prohibitions. As a result, the court dismissed the five charges for criminal threat filed against the defendant.
Defenses to this Charge
As noted above, the prosecution must prove the above elements before a defendant can be found guilty of making a criminal threat. One way to prevent that from happening is to argue that one or more of the factors are not present in the case. These arguments are legal defenses to this charge, and some examples include:
- there was no immediate threat because the statement was too vague as to when the threat would be carried out;
- the alleged victim was not afraid because it was taken as a joke, or the person did not believe it could be carried out;
- the victim’s fear was unreasonable; or
- the victim’s fear was momentary, and it did not cause prolonged concern.
Presenting legal defenses is a critical aspect of any criminal defense case, and is one of the primary reasons someone facing criminal charges needs to seek an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney
No matter the charge, you need a criminal defense attorney committed to defending your rights and getting the best possible result. The criminal justice system is a complex place that calls for an experienced attorney to advocate for your interests. Los Angeles’ Manshoory Law Group, APC knows what it takes to build a strong defense, and has attorneys available 24/7 to take your call.Contact us for a free consultation.