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Can You Go to Jail for Threatening Someone?
What You Need to Know

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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

Schmidt & Clark, LLP is not currently accepting these types of cases and has posted this content for information purposes only. We encourage you to seek a qualified attorney, if you feel you might have a case.


If you threaten someone in a way that makes them fearful of being harmed or killed, this can be classified as harassment and treated as a crime. 

As an attorney with experience handling cases involving threats, I wanted to share some insights on what you need to know if you are facing criminal charges.

Quick Summary

  • Criminal threats are often treated as felony offenses.
  • If someone accuses you of making criminal threats, there may be some things you can say to defend yourself.
  • To secure a conviction in a criminal charge, law offices must demonstrate that you communicated a specific statement intending to frighten the victim.

What Is the Definition of Criminal Threats?

A lawyer looking up the definition of criminal threats in a law bookThe definition of criminal threats is the crime of making someone feel that they are in danger of physical harm or death [1].

A person making the threats can do this through verbal communication, writing, sign language, or any other means through which a person is put on notice that their safety is at risk. 

Law offices deal with criminal threats as felony offenses and are punishable by years in prison. In some states, threats may be categorized as “terroristic threats,” even if you don't carry out the threat.

What Are the Elements of a Criminal Threat?

A lawyer pointing to a law book that explains the elements of a criminal threat

The elements of a criminal threat entail specific communication about physical harm or death, made purposefully to cause actual fear and coerce another person.

The alleged victim must believe they are in certain danger of being subjected to bodily injury or killed by the perpetrator. 

Let me explain it in detail.

1. Making a Credible Threat to Bodily Harm Someone

The first part of the crime has the deliberate intent to kill or seriously injure another person. Doing something on purpose means you intend to harm one or more people. Additionally, "great bodily harm" refers to major physical harm, as opposed to minor injuries like scratches or bruises.

2. Clearly Stating the Danger to Another Individual

To prove guilt, the prosecutor must show that you communicated a threatening message to the alleged victim.

This communication could be:

  • Orally
  • In writing
  • Through electronic means

3. Making a Clear, Immediate, Unconditional, and Specific Threat

The prosecutor must also demonstrate that the language you used in your statement conveyed that you were sincere in your threat and could immediately carry out the threat with the intent of great bodily harm.

4. Causing Fear in the Alleged Victim

The law offices then must show that the alleged victim feared for their safety or the safety of others because of the threat. The fear has to last more than a few seconds and be more significant than a passing shock. The alleged victim must have felt fear that a reasonable person would not have under the circumstances.

5. Feeling Reasonable Fear

The victim's fear does not only have to last, but it must be reasonable. In other words, their terror would make sense if you threatened to harm them with a knife. But it might seem irrational if you said you'd drive a tank into their residence.

Also ReadParty Consent Explained

Can You Go to Jail for Threatening Someone?

Yes, you can go to jail for threatening someone with physical harm or death. Law offices and the courts take threats very seriously, and those who are found guilty of making or communicating a threat can face up to three years in prison.  

Even if you are threatening as just a joke, you can still face felony charges and criminal charges. If you are charged with this crime, the consequences can also include fines and probation.

"Courts have also found that empty threats can be criminal threats."
- Robert M. Helfend, Criminal Defense Attorney

How Many Years Can You Get for a Threat?

A close up shot of a criminal's hands in handcuffsThe number of years you can get for a threat depends on the state. Generally, the maximum sentence for a criminal threat is three years in prison.

But if you're convicted of a felony charge, you could face up to 5 or 10 years in jail.

Additionally, some states may have specific laws that dictate an increased sentence for threatening someone with deadly force or a weapon. It's important to note that in addition to jail time, a person convicted of making a criminal threat may also be required to pay fines and court costs.

Related Article: How Long Does Jail Booking Take?

Penalties for Making Criminal Threats

Criminal threats may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor charge or felony charge, depending on the situation and the defendant's past criminal history. 

Punishments for a misdemeanor include:

  • Up to one year in county jail
  • $1,000 in fines

If convicted of a felony, the penalties increase:

  • Up to three years in state prison
  • $10,000 in fines

Felony criminal threats are considered a "third strike" offense, which requires you to serve at least 85% of your sentence. If you commit another crime after being released, called a "strike," it would result in a longer sentence. A third "strike" results in a mandatory 25-year long prison term.

Related Article: How Long Does a Misdemeanor Stay On Your Record?

Possible Defenses Against Criminal Threat Charges

An attorney preparing defenses against criminal threat charges

Various defenses may be available to you if you have been accused of criminal threats.

For example, depending on the facts of the case, it might be possible to argue:

  1. The threat wasn't specific enough.
  2. The time frame didn't meet the legal standards for "immediacy".
  3. The recipient's fear was unfounded.
  4. The fear didn't last.
  5. False accusations.

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FAQs

What Is Considered a Threat?

A threat is considered an action or statement that shows an intent to bodily harm someone else physically or emotionally.

What Are the 4 Categories of Threats?

The 4 categories of threats are direct, indirect, veiled, and conditional.

What’s the Difference Between a Felony Charge and a Misdemeanor Charge?

The difference between a felony charge and a misdemeanor charge is that misdemeanor charges are less severe than felonies and thus have more lenient punishments.

These may include shorter jail terms, community service, fines, rehabilitation, and/or probation. In contrast, those convicted of felony charges spend at least a year in prison.

Before you threaten someone, you must know that you can face criminal charges. It's important to understand your case by talking to an experienced attorney.

Fight your criminal charge and contact Shmidt & Clark, LLP for a free consultation and to learn more about what legal options are available to you. Our team of criminal defense lawyers will listen carefully to your case and provide unmatched quality representation in court. 


References:

  1. http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=pen&group=00001-01000&file=422-422.4