Criminal Threats in California

Speaking of criminal threats, make no mistake about it: running your mouth can get you arrested for, charged with, and convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, even if you thought you were just ranting or blowing off steam. See Pen. Code § 422. And if it’s a felony, it’s punishable by up to three years in state prison.

So what does it take to convict you? Well, it ain’t easy. The statute and case law say that the government must prove six things:

  1. That you willfully threatened to kill or cause great bodily injury to someone or that person’s immediate family. The term great bodily injury refers to a substantial or significant physical injury, not a minor or moderate one. But “immediate family” can include someone that the person has lived with for just the last six months.
  2. That you made the threat orally or in writing, including by electronic communication. So purely nonverbal gestures don’t count. See People v. Franz (2001) 88 Cal. App. 4th 1426, 1439-42.
  3. That you intended that your statement be understood as a threat.
  4. That your threat was so clear, immediate, unconditional, and specific that it bespoke a serious intention and the immediate prospect of its being carried out. But even arguably ambiguous words can qualify based on the circumstances. People v. Butler (2000) 85 Cal. App. 4th 745, 753-54.
  5. That the threat did, in fact, cause your target to be in sustained fear for his or her safety or that of the immediate family. Sustained fear means more than what’s momentary, fleeting, or transitory. In re Ricky T (2001) 87 Cal. App. 4th 1132, 1139-41.
  6. That your target’s fear was reasonable under the circumstances.

So it ain’t a gimme, but I wouldn’t chance it. A felony conviction is considered a “serious felony” and, therefore, a strike under the Three-Strikes Law. See Pen. Code § 1192.7(c)(38). Plus, even a misdemeanor conviction may be considered a crime of moral turpitude that affects your professional license or immigration status. See People v. Thornton (1992) 3 Cal. App. 4th 419, 422-24. So find another way to give that jerk a piece of your mind.

By the way, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t intend to carry out the threat. Pen. Code § 422(a). Nor does it matter that you conveyed the threat to someone else entirely, if the government can prove that you intended for it to be communicated to your target. People v. Felix (2001) 92 Cal. App. 4th 905, 911-13; In re Ryan D. (2002) 100 Cal. App. 4th 854, 861-62. And even if your target never receives the threat, you can still be convicted of an attempted criminal threat if the government proves that you intended to make a threat that was sufficient to cause sustained fear in a reasonable person. People v. Chandler (2014) 60 Cal. 4th 508, 525.

So take a deep breath, instead, and walk away. Loose lips, as they say, sink ships.

Ratings and Reviews

The National Trial Lawyers
Mani Dabiri American Bar Foundation Emblem