Every individual has a right to live in a secure environment without fear of being harmed. Even though the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, this freedom has limitations to what you can say to someone else. You will be arrested and charged with an offense of making criminal threats if your behavior imposes fear or danger to another person. A conviction for making criminal threats has hefty penalties. However, not all threats made will constitute criminal threats, and the prosecutor must show that the threat made would unconditionally impose fear on the alleged victim. If you or your loved one is charged with this offense, it is crucial to enlist the help of an attorney from the Orange County Criminal Lawyer. We serve clients from Orange County, CA, and work our best to ensure the best possible outcome of your case.

Legal Definition of Criminal Threats

Under California Penal Code 422, you will be charged with making criminal threats for threatening to harm another person, and as a result, you create reasonable fear to the individual. A criminal threat can be verbal or non-verbal. You will be charged with this offense even when the threat you made was handwritten or wired to the victim through social media. It is essential to understand that the message relaying the threat does not have to be made to the victim. You can still be charged with making criminal threats if you made a threat to someone through a third party.

The law seeks to prosecute individuals who make threats with an intent to commit an offense that might cause bodily harm or death. Someone can file criminal threats charges against you if they feel that their lives are in danger caused by your words or actions. When facing such a criminal charge, it is always essential to have legal representation.

Elements of a Criminal Threat

In California, the prosecutor is required to prove the following elements before a conviction is made under Penal Code 422:

You Willfully Threatened to Cause Injury or Kill Someone Else

You do not need to carry out the act of injuring someone for you to be charged with making criminal threats. However, the prosecutor must prove that you caused fear to someone else by threatening to harm them. The intention to harm in itself is enough to file charges for criminal threats. Also, a criminal threat does not have to be specifically directed to one person. Making a threat to harm a particular group of individuals can bring about these charges.

You Made Verbal, Electrically Communicated or Written Statements Portraying a Threat

Under California Penal Code 422, criminal threats are statements made verbally, written, or electronically wired. The prosecutor must prove that you made threatening statements to the victim through one or all of the above means. It is important to note that gestures, no matter what they mean, cannot be considered a way of communicating a threat. Electronically, threats can be relayed using:

  • Computers
  • Fax machine
  • Text messages ad 
  • Video recorders

When a threat is electronically conveyed, it makes it easier for the prosecutor to prove the occurrence of the act. A verbally communicated threat may be complicated for the prosecutor to prove unless there were present witnesses when the event occurred.

You Caused Fear

Criminal threats charge will only suffice if your statement or information placed the victim in reasonable panic. There are three ways in which fear can occur:

  • Actual Fear - The prosecutor needs to show that the victim feared for their lives before convicting you under California Penal Code 422. Also, it should be clear that the victim took your threats seriously. This could be shown if they took more safety precautions to protect themselves. You can still be prosecuted for criminal threats even if you made the threats through a third party. As long as the victim believes that the threat will be executed, the criminal charges will suffice. However, if the alleged victim was not scared of your threats, you cannot be convicted for this offense.
  • Reasonable fear - Reasonability is crucial in a criminal threats case. A threat must be made in a way that creates real fear for you to be charged with criminal threats. Some threats may be silly and impossible to execute. Therefore they will not be considered criminal threats. However, this does not mean that a lack of immediate ability to complete the threats will be used to refute the charges. It will all come down to the recipient believing that the threat will be implemented and reasonably fearing for their lives.
  • Sustained Fear - The threats you made must be sustained in the victim’s for it to be considered a criminal threat. However, whether the threat created continuous fear or not will be determined by the jury as per the case.

The Threat was Clear and Specific

A prosecutor must show that the threat was clear and directed to the victim or a group of people. Also, it should be clear that the victim understood that the communication made was a threat made to them. Under California Penal Code 422, the genuine threats that qualify as criminal threats should convey the message to the threat recipient and creates an immediate fear. However, there are conditional and empty threats that can be eligible as criminal threats:

  • Conditional threats - These are threats made to harm the victim under certain circumstances. Limited threats could be a part of blackmail or extortion and can attract additional charges. If a conditional threat is made in a context that applies to the victim ad has a likelihood of being executed, it will be treated as a criminal threat. If you are facing criminal threat charges, it would be wise to enlist the help of a criminal lawyer.
  • Empty threats - An empty threat is one that the defendant did not have an intention to execute. However, the victim may not realize that a threat will not be carried out and will still be fearful of their lives. In a prosecution for criminal threats, an intent to execute the threat is not essential. As long as you conveyed the threat, and it caused fear to the victim, you can get charged and convicted for criminal threats.

It is essential to understand that the prosecutor must prove all the elements of the crime before convicting you for making criminal threats. Your defense attorney will only need to create doubt in one aspect to give the jury a reason to reduce your penalties or dismiss the criminal charges. 

Penalties for Criminal Threats

The crime of making criminal threats is a wobbler in California Penal Code 422 that can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. During the case hearing, the court will decide how to convict, depending on the circumstances of the case. When the threat you made is not severe enough to be considered a violent crime, you will get charged with a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor conviction, in this case, carries a sentence of up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines.

On the other hand, felony criminal threats are punishable by up to three years in state prison and $10,000 in fines. Also, a felony conviction is considered a strike in the Three Strikes law, and a prior strike offense conviction will enhance the penalties. If you made threats to more than one person on different occasions, you could face penalties for each threat you made.

Sometimes you may receive probation as part of the penalties for making criminal threats. The duration of probation will be determined by the judge, depending on the circumstances of your case. As a condition for probation, you may have to serve the one-year jail sentence. Also, contact between you and the alleged victim will be restricted. However, regardless of the nature of your sentence, a conviction for criminal threats carries severe penalties

Criminal threats is a crime of moral turpitude and is considered more offensive than other crimes. A conviction for this offense can cause deportation or an immigrant to be rendered inadmissible. Regardless of the duration, you have lived in the United States, a crime of moral turpitude will affect your immigration status.

Also, getting convicted for making criminal threats can cause disciplinary action brought against you by licensing bodies. Professional licenses such as medical practitioner license or teaching license can be revoked and end your career. You should contact an experienced criminal lawyer if you have been accused of making criminal threats.

Legal Defenses Against Penal Code 422 Charges

Getting arrested for making criminal threats does not always guarantee a conviction. With the help of a knowledgeable lawyer, you can present the following defense against your case:

Your Threats were vague and Ambiguous

Before making a conviction, the prosecutor must prove that the statement you made had an intent to threaten someone. Vague and ambiguous threats do not suffice to support a conviction. With the help of an attorney, you can try to create a doubt in the intent of the statements you made. If a specific purpose is not indicated, you cannot be convicted for this offense.

The Alleged Victim did not Sustain Fear

Fear is an essential element that a prosecutor needs to show to establish your guilt. It must be clear that the recipient of the threats was fearful of their lives. If the alleged victim did not experience actual fear, your statement would not be considered a criminal threat. You can argue that you were joking, and the alleged victim knew. That is why they did not show any fear of your statements.

However, there is no specific time limit for which a threat should cause sustained fear. Evidence demonstrating that no actual fear was experienced can be an affirmative defense to a criminal threats case. Sometimes a person may pretend that they were fearful even when the threats were unreasonable. If you can show that they did not have to fear your statements, you will have a better chance of fighting these charges.

False Accusations

Since a victim of criminal threats need not suffer any physical injuries, this offense is prone to false accusations. A spiteful, jealous or angry person could easily accuse you of making a criminal threat. Especially when the alleged threats are verbal, it is easy for one to come up with something you did not say. 

If there are no witnesses to prove that you made the threatening statement, you can present this as a defense in your case. It is more difficult to trace a verbal threat than a written or electronically conveyed threat. Your attorney may be able to show that a lack of evidence or a witness is an indication that the threats were not made.

You only Made a Threatening Gesture

A criminal threat must be made verbally, electronically, or in writing. You cannot be convicted under California Penal Code 422 for non-verbal communication. The prosecutor will successfully prosecute you for a threat you made verbally, in writing, or electronically. Also, the threats made need to be unconditional, immediate a specific.

The Statement you Made is Protected by Free Speech 

California Criminal law does not seek to punish emotional outbursts. The law prosecutes individuals who instill fear in other people. The court will examine the context under which the statements were made and determine if they qualify to be criminal threats. You can argue that although your comments were made out of anger, they were not meant to threaten or cause fear to the alleged victim.

You did not Make an Immediate Threat

California Penal Code 422 provides that a threat must be clear, specific, and immediate. However, this does not mean that the threat is to be executed the minute it is made. However, a vague threat may not show any sign of immediacy. Showing that the threats you made were not immediate can help reduce the penalties you receive for this offense.

Offenses Related to Penal Code 422 of California

Criminal threats is a severe offense in California and can be charged alongside other crimes, including:

  1. California Penal Code 518 – Extortion

It is considered a crime of extortion when you use threats to compel another person to surrender some money or property to you. A prosecutor must prove the following facts for you to be considered guilty of extortion:

  • You threatened to cause harm or injury to the alleged victim. Even if you did not execute the threats to injure the victim, you could still be charged with extortion. However, you must demand something from the victim using a threatening statement for a threat to be considered a basis of blackmail. 
  • When making the threatening statements, you intended to force the victim to surrender money, property, or do an official act.
  • The prosecutor must prove that the alleged victim had agreed to give the property as a result of your threats.
  • The victim did surrender the property or money. You could not be charged with extortion if a victim did not perform the act to which they consented. Receiving the token from the victim is the basis for an extortion charge. However, even if the victim did not perform the act, you can be charged with attempted extortion, which is a lesser offense.

In California, extortion is a felony, and a conviction will attract up to four years in county jail. Also, you may be required to serve formal probation ad pay fines not exceeding $10,000.The penalties for this offense can be enhanced if you used threats to extort a senior citizen or someone with physical or mental impairment.

In most cases, people will use serious threats to extort others, and you may be convicted with extortion as well as criminal threats. The penalties that accompany these offenses are severe, and it is crucial to be represented by a criminal lawyer.

  1. California Penal Code 136.1 – Intimidating a Witness

You can be charged for intimidating a victim if you attempt to prevent or prevent a witness of a crime from reporting or testifying about the occurrences. For the prosecutor to ascertain your guilt for this offense, they must prove that:

  • You maliciously or knowingly
  • Prevented or attempted to prevent
  • A witness of a crime from reporting the crime, attending a judicial proceeding, or helping in the investigation and prosecution

Even if you did not succeed in intimidating the witness or victim, you could still be charged and convicted for dissuading a witness. In California, Penal Code 136.1 is a wobbler and can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. However, if you intimidated or attempted to intimidate a witness using force or as part of a conspiracy, this offense will be charged as a felony. For this offense use of force is determined by the threats made towards the victim. Even if they did not suffer a bodily injury, you would be charged with a felony.

When charged as a misdemeanor dissuading a victim attracts up to one year jail time and a maximum $1,000 in fines. A felony conviction for intimidating a victim will cause a maximum of four years of a prison sentence and fines not exceeding $10,000. You may also be banned from owning and using firearms for ten years or a lifetime. If, in your attempt to dissuade the witness from reporting or testifying to a crime, you used threats, you will be charged with both criminal threats and dissuading a witness.

  1. California Penal Code 13700 – Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is any kind of abuse inflicted on an intimate partner. You will be charged with domestic violence if you use force or threaten to harm an intimate partner physically. For this offense, a partner could either be a current or former spouse, a currently registered domestic partner, or anybody with whom you have had an intimate relationship.

Also, domestic violence may be geared towards a child or dependent on the family. Domestic violence can either be physical, emotional, or psychological. Most cases of domestic violence will be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on:

  • Circumstances under which the abuse occurred
  • The seriousness of the injuries suffered by the alleged victim. This will be a determining factor where physical injuries were inflicted.
  • Your criminal records. The law is stringent of repeat offenders, and a previous conviction would cause a penalty enhancement

Allegations of domestic violence, in most cases, result from out of hand emotional situations. People in these situations may often make threatening statements even when they don’t intend to execute the threats. If the victim believes that you will accomplish these threats and fear for their lives, you can get charged with both domestic violence and criminal threats. A case of criminal threats with domestic violence charges can attract severe penalties. It is, therefore, vital to enlist the help of a competent criminal lawyer for legal guidance.

  1. California Penal Code 646.9 - Stalking

You will get charged with stalking for following and harassing another person to a point where the person fears for their life. Under California Penal Code 646.9, the prosecutor must prove that you willingly and maliciously followed another person making them feel unsafe. Also, they need to show that you made threats intending to cause harm to the alleged victim. If the threats are found to be clear and immediate, you will be charged with stalking alongside criminal threats.

Fight Criminal Threat Charges with the Help of a Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Getting charged with making criminal threats is a complicated situation. A conviction for this offense will attract severe penalties, including jail time and hefty fines. Also, making criminal threats can be accompanied by other charges such as assault, extortion, and trespass. Fortunately, there are defenses you can present in an attempt to fight the criminal charges brought against you. Presenting a strong defense in such a case will require insight from a competent lawyer from the Orange County Criminal Lawyer. If you are in Orange County, CA, you will need us in your corner. Call us today at 714-262-4833 to discuss more details of your case.