UPDATED: April 16, 2012
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A terroristic threat is when a person threatens to commit any crime of violence against another person with the intent to terrorize. Because this is a speech based crime, it can often be difficult to determine if a person's actions constitute a criminal offense. Read further for information on the nature of a terroristic threat, the defenses, and the potential punishment and consequences.
What is a Terroristic Threat?
Terroristic threat offenses not only punish the speech but the intended result of the speech. If a state’s terroristic threat penal code only punished for the speech, then it could be subject to constitutional challenge. It is because of these challenges that states have expanded their terroristic threat statutes to include an additional component with the offending speech. Usually the second component is an intent to terrorize, harm, intimidate, or disrupt a government function. Some states will call this offense terroristic threat, which others will call the same conduct terroristic threatening or criminal threat. Regardless of the specific name used, the general proof requirements are the same.
The first component is proof that something was said that can be considered threatening. Words are often subject to interpretation. This interpretation will usually be evaluated from the victim’s point of view. For example, if a husband tells his wife, “I’m going to kill you,” then the threat is fairly direct and any person, including the wife, would consider the statement threatening. Some threats are more veiled but the context of the statement could be considered a threat.
The second component is the intent of the threat. People make casual threats every day. To separate the playful threats from the serious or disturbing ones, states add a component requiring that the intent of the threat to be for some specific, illegal purpose. Some intent examples used in varying states include: intent to terrorize victim, intent to disrupt public operation or event, intent to intimidate a witness, and intent to scare a police officer. Intent to terrorize is the most common type of intent required. The other types of intent will be set out in the state’s penal codes. Intent is inferred from the statement and the circumstances surrounding the statement. Many defendants do not contest that the statement was made, but rather the intent behind the statement.
Once the state proves a threat and the intent of the threat, then a defendant can be convicted of terroristic threat. Because the offense punishes the threat, there is no requirement that a victim actually experience an injury. Some states, however, will require that the intended victim actually experience some level of fear associated with the threat to support a conviction for terroristic threat.
Defenses for a Terroristic Threat Charge
As mentioned, negating intent is the most common type of defensive theory used for a terroristic threat charge. The defense entails admitting that the statement was made, but challenging the full intent of the threat. Just as the state can use surrounding circumstances to prove intent, a defendant can used the same or other facts to negate intent. If the relationship has been otherwise peaceful with the victim, a defendant may want to use the congenial history to develop evidence that the statement was made in fun or frustration, but certainly not as a threat intended to stress or terrorize the victim. The history shared with the victim before and after the threat is evidence of the intent and result. This is not the best defense to use with a hostile victim.
Other defensive strategies are state specific. Some states have provisions for a defendant invoking insanity as a defensive theory. Others make exceptions for defendants who are merely trading insults as participants of a sporting event if both persons were contributing to the exchange of threats. Even if a defendant cannot make a charge go away completely, he can at least use the same techniques to get a judge or jury to impose a lesser sentence such as disorderly conduct.
Punishment and Consequences for a Terroristic Threat Conviction
The basic penalty range for a terroristic threat conviction is from sixty days to twenty years in prison depending on the severity of the threat. Basic threats are considered misdemeanors. Arkansas, for example, punishes minor threats to parties as misdemeanor offenses. More serious threats, like those to kill or cause substantial damage, are punished as felonies which can include up to twenty years in prison. How the threat is communicated or the nature of the victim can also result in the enhancement of a charge to a felony level. For example, in Georgia, a threat communicated through an act like burning a cross in a victim’s yard increases the range of punishment by five years.
Terroristic threats against certain victims increase the range of punishment. These victims include: witnesses, prior victims, police officers, churches, or victims targeted because of racial discrimination. The more egregious the threat the higher the potential sentence.
Depending on a defendant’s criminal history, a court can place a defendant on probation. Because a terroristic threat is considered a violent or aggressive offense, the supervision tends to be more intense, often involving extra reporting requirements and anger management counseling. If other factors contributed to the making of the threat, the court can impose any other probation or counseling requirements needed to address a defendant’s rehabilitation. Most jurisdictions will also draft protective orders into the terms of probation which prohibit a defendant from engaging in any contanct (verbal, physical, or electronic) with the victim of the threat.
Some defendants will accept a misdemeanor conviction because they think that it will not affect them in later proceedings. If a terroristic threat conviction involved a family member, the conviction could be a basis for enhancing a later assault family violence charge from a misdemeanor to a felony level offense. The enhancement can occur regardless of the punishment assessed for the terroristic threat. For example, if a defendant pled guilty to terroristic threat of his girlfriend ten years ago and served ten days in the county jail, then this conviction could be used to enhance a new misdemeanor family violence charge to a third degree felony.