California Penal Code section 422 defines "criminal threats" as willfully threatening to kill or severely harm a victim. It is a "wobbler" crime, meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. However, prosecutors will routinely charge it as a felony to gain an advantage in the plea bargaining stage of the case.
Like with any other crime, the prosecution has to prove each element of the alleged violation beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements of Pen. Code section 422 show that it may be difficult to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt when there exist facts favorable for the defendant. Let me explain, by first stating each element of the crime.
- Defendant willfully threatened to unlawfully kill or cause great bodily injury (GBI) to another person or person's immediate family (from here on out we will exclude the section regarding a person's family)
- Defendant made the threat orally, in writing, or by electronic communication device
- Defendant intended that his or her statement be understood by the person as a threat
- The threat was so clear, immediate, unconditional, and specific, that it communicated to the person being threatened a serious intention and the immediate prospect that the threat would be carried out
- The threat actually caused the person to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety and
- The threatened person's fear was reasonable under the circumstances.
For example, a threat made in jest between two friends would not be a chargeable offense. A conditional threat, as well, could not lead to a conviction: "I will hurt you if you continue to date that person..."
Similarly, a threat must cause a sustained fear in the person threatened. Say a defendant is mentally ill. While experiencing a psychotic episode, the defendant makes a criminal threat against a law enforcement official. Prior to the threat, the law enforcement officer knew or should have known that the defendant was a mentally ill person. Further, the defendant, outnumbered by six other officers, had no way of carrying out the threat. The hypothetical above would likely end with an acquittal.
A criminal charge is not a criminal conviction. A prosecutor may charge a defendant with a criminal threats charge, but there may be facts that support a dismissal or acquittal.