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When a Careless Word Becomes a Terrorist Threat [Penal Code Section 422]

“Keep talking and I’m going to get my gun!”

Careless words, even when spoken in jest, can leave a person vulnerable to prosecution. Certain criteria must be met under the provision which covers terrorist threats in Orange County – including that the recipient of the threat must be rendered fearful – but gray areas can become a matter of judgment.

The term “terrorist” carries connotations which may leave a person who is taken into custody wondering how such a charge could be made. After all, you didn’t threaten a room full of people, or draw a weapon on an airplane. However, California Penal Code, Section 422 is designed to protect individuals from threats that evoke fear, or terror. The issue may seem nothing more than a matter of semantics, but it is a serious one, indeed, and if you have been thusly charged, you need a Southern California defense attorney.

PC 422 defines a terrorist threat as a threat to “commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the statement be made verbally, in writing, or by means or an electronic communication device.” In essence, you are breaking the law even if you have no intention of carrying out the threat. Calling a neighbor whose barking dog is keeping you awake in the middle of the night and saying, “Shut that dog up or I’m going to come over there!” can be enough to put you in a jail. Veiled threat though it is, the context suggests you plan to commit violence
Note that a threat need not be made in person or by phone, either. Sending a threatening email falls under the umbrella of a terrorist threat as well. You may notice that the news these days often includes stories of individuals who are arrested for making threats by text or email message. They may be lured to write things in the virtual world that they would not dare say face-to-face because there is an illusion of distance and anonymity.

What if you didn’t mean what you said? Can you really spend years of your life in state prison for an idle threat you had no intention of carrying out? That depends on how it is perceived. To be convicted under PC 422 it must be proven that:

• The receiver, or victim, was legitimately made fearful by the threat • The victim’s fear must be reasonable • The fear must be sustained over time.

An estranged spouse may claim to be living in fear after you make an idle threat in a heated phone exchange. Whether she is actually fearful is one of those gray areas. If the spouse wants to pursue a terrorist threat charge against you out of spite, it may be difficult to show she was not fearful. While the burden of proof is on the prosecution, one can imagine that a jury will look at the threat and circumstances, along with the spouse’s actions thereafter, to determine whether true fear existed.

The third criterion also leaves room for argument. What constitutes “sustained over time”? How much time would need to elapse during which the victim is fearful? Case precedent may be used by either side to help support a definition.

Ultimately, the point that should be taken away from this discussion is that you may be walking on thin ice if you are imprudent in the words you use. A seeming innocuous comment made in a moment of frustration can result in criminal prosecution.

If you are accused of making terrorist threats, seek the assistance of legal professionals who have over 30 years of experience helping clients just like yourself. Call Southern California defense attorneys Wallin & Klarich for a consultation today at (888) 280-6839.

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