The definition of terroristic threats can have a very broad meaning. Sometimes, it can mean the type of threat you think of when you think of terrorists. In other cases, it just means that someone made a serious threat. Because the charge can be both vague and sometimes overused by prosecutors, it’s important to have a criminal defense attorney review your charges if you’ve been charged with terroristic threats.
What Is the Definition of Terroristic Threats?
Pennsylvania Statute Title 18 Section 2706 defines terroristic threats as communicating a threat to:
- Commit any crime of violence with intent to terrorize another
- Cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transportation, or
- Otherwise cause serious public inconvenience, or cause terror or serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience.
The threat can be direct or indirect. A direct threat might be verbally making a threat. An indirect threat might be leaving a note in the public library that contains a threat against a church on the other side of town.
A threat against a building place of assembly or facility could be a threat that isn’t against a specific person. This might be a student making a bomb threat against a school to make the school shut down rather than directly threatening harm against another.
What Are the Penalties for Terroristic Threats in Pennsylvania?
There are two levels of terroristic threat charges. Most are a first-degree misdemeanor. The charge gets upgraded to a third-degree felony if the threat forced the evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or public transportation facility, and the threat disrupted the operations of the place that had to evacuate.
- A first-degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
- A third-degree felony is punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine up to $15,000.
A person who is convicted of a terroristic threat forcing an evacuation must pay restitution covering the cost of the evacuation including the emergency response.
What Are the Defenses to a Terroristic Threats Charge?
The main defense to any criminal charge is that you didn’t do it. With terroristic threats, this becomes more important as the vagueness of the statute means that police and prosecutors will often file charges that don’t actually meet the definition of the crime even if you may have said or done something most people wouldn’t find nice. You have to have the intent to terrorize, so something that was a joke, an accident, or got misinterpreted may not be enough to convict. You also have to make a threat to commit a crime, cause an evacuation, or have some other disruptive consequence. Just yelling loudly at someone and their getting scared generally isn’t enough.
Another important consideration of your defense is that the prosecution has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. If the threat was verbal, the witness may not be credible, or there may not be any corroborating evidence that supports the needed criminal intent. Depending on how the threat was made, hearsay rules could also come into play, so some evidence may not be allowed at trial. If the threat was written, there needs to be proof that you were the one who wrote it.
Does It Matter If You Had the Ability to Carry Out the Threat?
Having the ability to carry out the threat isn’t an element of the crime. For example, you could still be convicted for making a bomb threat even if you didn’t have a bomb or know how to get a bomb. Your lawyer may still be able to use lack of ability to carry out the threat to help show that you shouldn’t have been taken seriously or didn’t have the required criminal intent.
What Is the Spur-of-the-Moment Defense?
In a case called Commonwealth v. Anneski, a court held that comments made in the heat of the moment lacked an intent to terrorize. The case involved an argument between neighbors who threatened each other, but the court found that because they were involved in a heated and hysterical argument, they may not have meant what they said. However, this was a very fact-specific ruling, so it would still be up to the jury whether the spur-of-the-moment defense applies. Being in an argument doesn’t provide an automatic defense.
What Is the Difference Between Terroristic Threats and Recklessly Endangering Another Person?
A terroristic threat is telling someone you’re going to cause harm. Doing something or actually causing fear is not a required element of the crime.
Recklessly endangering another person is a physical action that places another person in danger or causes them to fear death or serious bodily injury. The difference is that you actually have to do something that could cause harm, not just make a threat.
Talk to an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you’ve been charged with terroristic threats, talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Even though there are many possible defenses, this is a very serious charge that can have long-lasting consequences. Contact us now to schedule a free consultation to evaluate the charges against you. If you’ve been charged with other crimes, such as DUI, check out our practice areas or visit our home page.