Can you go to jail for threatening someone? As citizens of the United States, we know that one of the hallmarks of our society is the right to free speech. The first Amendment to the Constitution gives us the right to speak freely, but are there cases, where our freedom to say whatever we want, has consequences?
Even laws under the Constitution have exceptions. Despite our nation’s value of our rights regarding freedom of expression, there are circumstances when you can face criminal charges for something you’ve said.
Our experts in criminal defense at The Law Offices of J.M. Kotzker want to help you understand the situations where your choice of words could result in criminal charges. If you threaten someone, say something in a threatening manner, or a person threatened believes that you intend bodily harm, you could be charged with verbal abuse or verbal assault.
What Is a Criminal Threat?
Our criminal justice system has exceptions to our freedom of speech laws that depend on the time, place, and manner in which a verbal threat was made. Even if you threaten harm to someone without the intent of following through on your words, your words still matter in a court of law.
Instances where North Carolina recognizes a verbal threat as a criminal act are:
- A person communicates the threat of harm to another person.
- A person intentionally uses threatening words to convey the possibility of harm to another person.
- A person’s threat to another person is credible, as it conveys details like the manner in which they intend to cause harm or the place or time the threat will be carried out.
Communicating a Threat of Harm
Communicating threats can be made in several different ways, and “communicating” is not limited to verbal threats.
Ways someone might communicate a threat of harm as a criminal act to another person are:
- In writing
- Through a third party
- Non-verbal body language
It may seem strange that body language can convey a threat, but if someone feels like they are in physical danger, more than the defendant’s words can be used against them. For instance, blocking a doorway with your body to keep someone from leaving a space is a way to convey a threat to someone’s safety without the use of words.
Intention to Threaten Harm
There are certainly times when people say things they do not mean. Whether through what they consider to be a joke or a threat they have no intention of acting on, a reasonable person understands that every single statement that comes out of our mouths is not always to be taken literally.
However, if a victim of verbal assault believes the defendant intended to carry out their threats or if the threat was in the form of intentional, malicious harassment, it may result in a conviction.
Specificity and Credibility of Threats
To be found guilty of communicating a threat it must be true that the threat was:
- Credible: the ability to carry out the threat exists.
- Real: there is intent to carry out the threat.
- Imminent: the victim fears that they are in immediate danger of harm.
For example, someone in line at a convenience store says to another customer, “this cashier is taking so long, if they do not hurry up I am going to kill them” no reasonable person would believe the speaker has the intent and ability to carry out physical harm on the cashier or that the cashier is in any immediate danger.
In contrast, if that same situation occurs, but in this scenario, the customer who made the verbal threat were to take out a knife and begin to approach the counter, there is reason to believe that the cashier is in imminent danger and the customer has both the ability and intent to physically assault them.
The Law of Communicating Threats
A criminal threat is when someone intends to place another person in fear of injury or death. The state of North Carolina takes verbal assault very seriously- communicating a threat is a Class 1 Misdemeanor and can potentially carry a lengthier sentence than simple assault.
The threat does not need to be carried out to lead to legal ramifications. It is the job of the prosecution to prove intent of violence was present and that the words used were not simply just unkind remarks. Your criminal defense attorney can take many legal approaches to create reasonable doubt, but those specifics depend on the details of your case.
What Is Considered A Reasonable Person In A Criminal Threat
When it comes to communicating threats, the criminal justice process calls for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any reasonable person would interpret the threat as real, credible, and imminent.
A “reasonable person” in this case is someone who, given the details of the situation, would have a valid reason to fear that they are in physical danger of the defendant.
Willfully Threatening to Cause Physical Harm
Making a threat of a physical assault willfully means that you purposefully use your words or non-verbal behavior to communicate that you intend great bodily injury to someone.
It is impossible for any other person to know exactly what is going through someone’s head in any circumstance, let alone a circumstance that becomes heated with elevated emotions and threatening behaviors. Whether or not an assault occurs, if the prosecution can prove to the court that the defendant knowingly threatened to cause physical harm, it can result in a conviction.
Intending Your Statement to Be Taken as a Threat
Your criminal defense lawyer will put together a case to provide reasonable doubt that you did not have the intent to carry out the actions of your statements.
As mentioned earlier, no one can know other than you exactly what was going through your mind at the moment of the threat. However, suppose the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your words were intentionally used to create a reasonable fear of physical violence to the alleged victim. In that case, you may be convicted and serve jail time.
Causing Fear in the Alleged Victim
If a verbal assault causes fear in the alleged victim, and if they believe that you are capable of and willing to carry out your physical threats then you have committed an illegal act of communicating a threat.
For example, in a domestic violence case where the defendant yells at the alleged victim, backs them into a corner, and raises their fist at them causing the individual to be reasonably fearful for their physical wellbeing.
Making a Clear, Immediate, Unconditional, and Specific Threat
To be convinced of communicating threats, the state must prove intent but they also must prove that the specific threat has the real potential of being immediately carried out.
Consider a situation where two people get into a verbal altercation, and one says “I’m going to shoot you” to the other. It would not be reasonable to believe this is a real, intentional, and immediate threat if the individual who made the threat is not armed. However, if the person makes that statement and shows that they are carrying a gun, there is reason to believe they are capable of committing physical harm and that the alleged victim is in immediate danger.
Penalties For Communicating Threats
If you are convicted of communicating criminal threats, you may face prison time, fines, or other penalties.
North Carolina classifies verbal assault as a misdemeanor crime that carries the potential for the following consequences:
- Incarceration: in NC there is a maximum of 120 days incarceration in county jail if convicted.
- Fines: a fine of up to $1000 can be ordered by the court if found guilty of communicating threats.
- Probation: in situations where it’s a first offense or other reason to give a lesser penalty, the court may sentence the defendant to probation for up to 24 months in lieu of jail time.
In more severe cases, you might be faced with felony charges and time in prison for communicating threats. Examples of this are:
- the threat was made while the defendant was in possession of a deadly weapon.
- there is a pattern of repeated threats and stalking.
- a verbal threat is made against a judge, attorney, witness, juror, or other officials of the court.
- the verbal assault is based on bias, prejudice, or includes hate speech.
- the threat is labeled as domestic terrorism because it is made against a location like a school, government building, or place of assembly.
Possible Defenses for Criminal Threats
Your criminal defense attorney will review the specific details of your case to develop the best strategy to avoid a conviction.
Some of the potential defenses against your communication of a threat charge(s) are:
- the threat was neither specific nor posed an immediate danger
- the accuser’s fear was not reasonable
- the accuser’s allegations are not true
- no threat was actually ever made
Having a conviction for communicating a threat or a verbal assault on your record can have negative consequences for you when background checks are run for future employment or housing opportunities. It is important to secure legal counsel with experience in knowledge to help fight your verbal threat charges and give you the best chance at not having a conviction on your permanent record.
Contact The Law Office Of J.M. Kotzker If You’re Facing Verbal Assault Charges
If you are facing criminal charges for communicating threats in North Carolina or other criminal charges, the Law Offices of J.M. Kotzker, P.C. can help.
Our Raleigh legal defense lawyer provides comprehensive services to build the best possible case to fight your charges. To learn more about how we can help you, contact us for a free consultation today by calling (919) 439-5104 or filling out the form below to get started.