California law makes it illegal for a person to use criminal threats against another person. If the threats are made against a family member, a cohabitant, or a spouse, the defendant could also be charged with domestic violence. Criminal threats law prohibits willfully threatening to engage in a criminal activity that will likely cause another person bodily harm or death. A criminal threat is a serious offense that can lead to a felony conviction. If you are facing criminal threats charges in Pasadena, we encourage you to contact our experienced domestic violence attorneys at Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm immediately. We understand the seriousness of this offense and we treat each case uniquely for the best possible results.

The Legal Definition of a Criminal Threat

Criminal threats were majorly referred to as terrorist threats. It occurs when a person uses injury or death threats against someone else. However, for a threat to be regarded as legitimate, it has to meet the four criteria listed below:

  • The defendant threatened to cause another person harm or kill them illegally

  • The threats were made in writing, orally, or through a communication device

  • The defendant’s intention ware for the victim to understand their statement as a threat

  • The threat was definitive, specific, and clear, and it conveyed an execution of a threat

  • The alleged victim actually feared for their safety and that of their close family members

Note that you can face criminal threat charges regardless of whether you have the power and ability to execute the threat. The threat does not also have to be directed to a specific person; it can be made against a group of people. For example, Mike and Peter, who happen to be cousins, get in a heated argument over a parking space at a family gathering event; Peter shouts at Mike, saying, “I will shoot you!” Even though Peter does not have a gun, he could be charged with criminal threats.

Below is the legal definition of the criteria stated above.

To Cause Another Person Injury or Death

For you to be convicted for criminal threats, you do not need to commit the actual crime; you only need to threaten to cause injury or kill the alleged victim. The injury must also be a great bodily injury and not a minor injury.


You can only be convicted for criminal threats if you caused the other person substantial fear. There are different concepts of fear under the law. For example, the victim could have:

  • Been actually fearful — the prosecutor must prove that your threats caused the alleged victim to fear for their lives and that of their close family members. You could still be convicted if you used a third party to communicate the threats as long as the victim was actually fearful.

  • Have reasonable fear — Even if you are not capable of acting according to your threats, you could still be convicted if the victim reasonably believed that you could commit the crime. However, there are crimes that do not count as threats. For example, if you threaten a person by telling them, “ I will hijack a police car and use it to run over your house.” This kind of threat is considered unreasonable and cannot lead to a criminal threat conviction.

  • Sustained the fear — The victim must have sustained the fear for a timeframe beyond fleeting for you to be convicted for criminal threats. There is no specific time frame; it is always upon the jury to decide.

Communication of Criminal Threats

How the criminal threat is communicated is essential when fighting your charges. The threat has to be clear, and specific, and it has to sound like it will be executed immediately. For instance, if you threaten to knock out another person’s head with a baseball when holding a bat, the threat may sound indefinite on when you would execute your acts. But if you threaten to shoot a person when holding a gun, this is a more definitive threat as you could carry out the stated action immediately.

The major difference between the two examples is the fear levels they both caused the victim. Threatening a victim when holding a gun creates more fear because the acts could occur immediately. On the other hand, being threatened to be hit with a baseball without it at hand means the victim will fear, but since the attack is likely to occur at a different time, the fear levels would not be very high.

Additionally, the threats must be communicated either in written, electronically, or verbally. With most communication now done through electronic devices, threats communicated through phones, computers, or voice recorders are taken as a criminal act. Threats communicated through writing or recording are easier to prove than verbal threats. Using a third party to communicate threats can also lead to a criminal threat conviction regardless of whether it was verbal or written.

Criminal Threats and Domestic Violence

If you threaten to injure your family member, you could be charged with both criminal threats and domestic violence. Even though there was no physical contact between you and the victim, you can still face charges for criminal threats as a domestic violence offense. If you are arrested for threatening a family member, you will likely be subjected to restraining orders for domestic violence. The victim may also file for protective orders and later petition full restraining orders.

Examples of Criminal Threats Involving a Domestic Violence Case

Threats can be about anything, and they can be directed at anyone. Below are some examples of criminal threats:

  • Calling your ex-girlfriend and telling him that you will burn down his home

  • Texting your ex-spouse and threatening to take her children away from her or end her life.

  • Calling your former cohabitant and warning him to watch his back

  • Breaking your partner’s phone to prevent them from asking for help

  • Yelling at your children that you will shoot them when pointing your gun at them

The list of criminal threats is endless, but these are examples of what criminal threats are. There are also times when you can be charged with indirect threatening under California law. For example, Mike is having a conversation with his friend Peter, and he reveals to him that he is going to hit Paul with a bat. If Paul overhears the conversation and reports it to the authorities, Mike could be charged with a criminal threat. Again, if Mike and Peter get into a heated argument and Mike takes out his gun, Paul, who is Mike’s best friend, shouts at Mike, saying “shoot him,” Paul could face criminal threat charges.

Conditional and empty threats are also considered criminal threats under the law. A conditional threat is a threat that is executed even when the threat conditions are met. Here is an example of a conditional threat, “ I will kill you and your family if you don’t pay my debt by Friday.” In this case, the threat wants to make the victim meet the condition. Some people consider conditional threats as extortion or blackmail, and a defendant can face additional penalties for these offenses.

Another example is an empty threat, which occurs when someone conveys threats but intends to scare the victim and not carry out the threat. But if the defendant made the victim believe that he/she would execute the threat acts, the defendant could face charges of a criminal threat. For instance, if you point an empty gun at a victim and threaten to shoot them, you could still face criminal threat charges because the victim is not aware that the gun does not have bullets and they believe you have the power and intention to shoot them.

Criminal Threat Penalties

This offense is always considered a wobbler under California law. This means the prosecutor can either charge it as a felony or a misdemeanor depending on your past criminal history and the circumstances surrounding the case. If charged with a misdemeanor for criminal threats, you are likely to face the following:

  • Fines of $1,000

  • Detainment in county jail for one year

On the other hand, if you are charged with a felony, you are likely to face the following:

  • Detainment in state prison for three years

  • Fines of $10,000

You would be subjected to an additional year in state prison if you used a lethal weapon to pass your threat to the alleged victim.

If you have made threats more than once against several individuals or have made the threats to pursue several objectives, you will be subjected to face penalties for every threat you communicate. You will also be subjected to additional penalties if the jury considers your threat as blackmail or extortion, or domestic violence. In domestic violence cases, you must have threatened either your:

  • Parent

  • Child

  • Current or ex cohabitant

  • Current or ex-spouse

Domestic violence is an emotional situation that is highly charged. When you get into a heated argument, you are likely to use threats even though you do not intend on acting on them. However, if the victim takes the matter seriously and becomes fearful of their safety and that of their immediate family members, you could face criminal threat charges under domestic violence. If you used any force or violence when communicating the threat, you could face both criminal threat charges and domestic violence charges.

The LA District Attorney’s Office can only charge you for criminal threats if:

  • You made several threat offenses within the last two years

  • The threat offense was connected to hate crime or domestic violence

  • You had a lethal weapon when communicating a threat

  • There was no indication that you were intoxicated or had a mental illness

The Three Strikes Law

If you are charged with a felony for criminal threats in California, the conviction attracts a strike under the Three Strikes Law. This is mainly because a criminal threat felony is considered a “serious offense”. If you are charged with a second felony for criminal threats when you already have a strike, you will face a second strike under California Three Strikes Law and your punishment will be doubled. A third felony conviction on criminal threats with two previous strikes is considered a third strike, and you are likely to face detainment in state prison of 25 years to life imprisonment.

Since this offense is a strike, if convicted, you will be required to serve 85 percent of your sentencing before you can be set free on parole.

Defenses Against Charges for Criminal Threats

There are several defense strategies that you and your attorney can rely on to defend you. Your attorney can also develop other solid defenses based on your case.

The Threat was not Immediate

This is a common defense against charges of criminal threats. This could also be referred to as a vague threat meaning that the threat was not immediate and specific. In other words, it does not convey a possibility of immediate execution. Even though the possibility of an immediate execution does not always mean that the threat will be executed at that particular moment, the alleged victim can understand it as a demand that if they fail to do as said or to comply with your terms, you will execute the threat at some point later.

However, if the threat was vague, if, for instance, you do not have the ability or power to execute the threat, this would serve as a good defense to fight your charges.

The Threat was Ambiguous

One of the elements of a criminal threat is that it must be specific, but it does not have to always be precise in the execution manner or the time of execution. In other words, if a threat seems ambiguous or vague when it is communicated, if the circumstances surrounding it gives a clear explanation of what it means, it could still be considered a criminal threat.

However, if the threat appears vague or ambiguous and it does not have any circumstances surrounding it that give the threat meaning or clarify it, you could use this as a defense to fight your charges. For example, Peter, a form four student, is accidentally hit by his teacher while opening the door. Peter got angry and told the teacher he would “ get him.” The teacher felt threatened and reported Peter. In this case, Peter cannot be charged with a criminal threat since his threat sounds vague, and there was no use of force or other words to clarify or give the threat meaning.

You Did Not Cause the Victim Fear

You could not be convicted of the criminal threat if the alleged victim did not fear. The victim could have thought of it as a joke, or they believed that you were not capable of executing your threat, and as a result, they did not fear. The victim must experience fear for the crime to be considered a criminal threat.

The Victim Experienced Unreasonable Fear

To be convicted for this offense, the victim must experience reasonable fear. However, if the victim experienced unreasonable fear, you cannot be convicted for the offense. There are two major requirements for the victim’s fear. It must be :

  • Real, and

  • Reasonable

If the fear does not meet the two requirements, the offense is not considered a criminal threat. This means that even if the victim feared your threats, the jury had to believe that the fear was reasonable. For example, if a person threatens to run over your house with an airplane and they do not have any experience flying an airplane and lack a pilot’s license, it would be unreasonable for you to fear.

The Fear was not Sustained

As explained above, for a defendant to be convicted of a criminal threat, the victim must have sustained fear, unlike fleeting. If the victim only experienced the fear for a short time and did not cause any prolonged concern, the defendant cannot be convicted of criminal threat. Additionally, if the victim experienced fear for a long period but the fear was an overreaction and unreasonable, the defendant can also not be convicted.

The Threat was Protected under the Law

This offense is not protected by the California constitution as free speech. However, the criminal threat law is meant to punish those who cause others fear, not those who rant due to anger making unreasonable threats.

False Accusations

It is not uncommon that a defendant can get accused falsely, mainly because a victim of criminal threats does not suffer any physical injury that may be used as evidence. A person trying to seek revenge, or vengeance may accuse you falsely of committing this crime. With the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney, you may use false accusations as a defense if you are being convicted falsely.

Criminal Threats and Related Offenses

Here are several offenses that are charged alongside or together with criminal threats.:

The Law Against Dissuading a Witness — CA Penal Code 136.1

This statute prohibits a person from attempting to prevent or preventing a crime victim or witness from testifying or reporting about the offense. If you use threats to dissuade a victim or witness from testifying against a crime, you may be charged with both criminal threats and PC 136.1.

This offense is considered a wobble and if you are charged with a misdemeanor, you could face one-year imprisonment in county jail while a felony conviction can lead to four years imprisonment in state prison.

Extortion — CA Penal Code 518

This statute prohibits using threats to gain something of value from another person. Could either be money, services or property. You can also be charged with extortion for threatening a public official in order for them to carry out a public act. For example, if you are vying for a parliamentary seat and you threaten your daily members by telling them if they do not vote for you, you will ruin them and their families. If reported, you could be charged with criminal threats and extortion.

This offense is always charged as a felony and its penalties include fines of $10,000 and detainment in state prison for up to four years.

California Stalking Laws — PC 646.9

This statute prohibits threatening or harassing someone else to a point they fear for their safety and that of their close family members. If when stalking someone else you communicate a threat through any means, you will be charged with both stalking and criminal threats. This offense is a wobbler and its penalties include detainment in county jail for one year if charged with a misdemeanor and imprisonment in state prison for five years if charged with a felony.

Gang Enhancement — PC 186.22

This offense is stated under the law as “California Criminal Street gang Enhancement”. If you communicate a threat to another person with the intent to benefit a gang, you could face up to 25 years in state prison plus criminal threat penalties.

Aggravated Trespass — PC 601

Aggravated trespass occurs when you threaten a person and they turn to fear for their safety and that of their close daily members and then enter their working or residential place within a month after communicating the threat. This offense is considered a wobbler and if charged with a misdemeanor, you could face one year in county jail. If charged with a felony, you could be sentenced to up to three years in state prison.

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

If you have a pending charge for criminal threats, it is crucial to contact a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney immediately. This is because prosecutors charge domestic violence cases aggressively, so you are likely to face additional charges and harsh penalties if you don’t act fast enough. Our skilled and dedicated criminal lawyers at Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm have experience handling different domestic violence cases such as criminal threats in Pasadena and can help you fight for your rights. Call today at 626-628-0564 if you are facing criminal threats charges in the Pasadena area.