California Penal Code § 422 PC defines a “criminal threat” for purposes of California criminal law. § 422 makes it a crime to threaten another person with immediate harm with the intent to cause reasonable fear. A person may be convicted of this offense even if he or she has no actual intent to carry it to fruition. Categorized as a domestic violence offense, the crime of criminal threats may be committed verbally, in writing, or through an electronic communication application such as an email, text message, or social media.

To be held criminally responsible for an offense under § 422, the following four elements must be proven:

  1. that you willfully threatened to kill or seriously injure another person,
  2. that you intended your verbal, written or electronically communicated statement to be received as a threat,
  3. that the threat on its face and under the circumstances was so “unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific” that it conveyed an immediate possibility of execution, and
  4. that the threatened individual reasonably feared for his/her safety or the safety of his/her immediate family.

An offender is not required to threaten to commit a specific crime against the victim. Any act threatening to cause great bodily injury is sufficient. The threat must be verbal, written, or electronically communicated.  Gestures and body language unaccompanied by a verbal, written, or electronically communicated statement are insufficient.

A defendant must place the victim in reasonable fear. The victim must have been actually fearful, that fear must have been reasonable, and the fear must have been sustained, rather than momentary. Also, under § 422, the threat must be “so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution…” Nonetheless, conditional threats may be considered a true threat legally if their context reasonably conveys to the victim that they are intended.

“Criminal threats” is a “wobbler ” which means that prosecutors may charge the offense as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the offense, and the criminal history of the defendant. Any person charged with making criminal threats faces up to three years in prison and a strike on his or her criminal record under California’s Three Strikes law.

As a California Criminal Trial Lawyer with over 40 years of courtroom experience, John Patrick Dolan has handled everything from traffic tickets to death penalty murder cases. Mr. Dolan is a recognized California State Bar Certified Specialist in Criminal Law and a true courtroom veteran of domestic violence defense cases. Call us today at (760) 775-3739 or find out more online here.

What Is The Legal Definition Of A Criminal Threat?