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Criminal Threats: Not a Form of Protected Speech

Although the U.S. Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to free speech, that right does not protect all forms of speech. There are long-recognized limitations on what exactly constitutes free speech. There are, for example, prohibitions against libel, slander and criminal threats.

A criminal threat involves one person threatening another with physical harm. This threat could be communicated orally, through text messages, through email or even in nonverbal body language. These threats are made with the intention to make another person fear for his or her safety — although it is not necessary for the victim to actually experience fear. It is the intent that matters in these cases.

For the threat to be criminal in nature, it must be capable of making the people who hear or see it feel as though they could be hurt and conclude that the threat is credible. Individuals cannot, for example, be convicted of making criminal threats if they threaten to drop a nuclear bomb on someone who doesn’t do as they ask. Making a threat of a physical beating, on the other hand, is a much more credible threat.

Penalties for criminal threats

A person convicted of making a criminal threat faces a variety of penalties, depending on the nature and severity of the threat. This crime could be considered either a misdemeanor or a felony. Examples of penalties include:

  • Prison or jail time: A misdemeanor threat may result in up to a year in jail, while a felony conviction could lead to multiple years in prison.
  • Fines: A fine for a criminal threat varies based on the circumstances. A misdemeanor could lead to a fine of up to $1,000, while a felony could lead to fines of more than $10,000.
  • Probation: A person who makes a criminal threat could be sentenced to a probationary period, during which he or she must comply with specific conditions set by a judge.

For more information on criminal threats and how you can protect your rights, speak with experienced Berks County criminal defense lawyer David R. Eshelman.


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