A “terroristic threat” can be defined as a threat to commit a crime of violence with the intent to terrorize another, to cause a building to be evacuated, or to cause serious public panic or inconvenience made with reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror and/or inconvenience. It can also be defined as “making a willful, unequivocal threat with the specific intent to cause people reasonable fear.”
This crime is a product of the last decade or so, enacted at both the state and federal levels, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The crime of making a terrorist threat is a very general law, and can be used to prosecute terrorists; however, it has been more commonly used to prosecute other violations of criminal law, such as domestic violence, hate crimes, bomb threats, and school violence. In many states, the term “terrorist” has been conflated with “criminal.”
Some state laws have a very narrow definition of terroristic threat, meaning the threat must be very specific and direct, while other states have a more broad definition, allowing even the most negligently made threats to be worthy of prosecution.
It is important to note that making a false report of terrorism is NOT the same as making a terroristic threat, and the two are separate charges.
What Are the Elements of a Terroristic Threat?
For a threat to be considered terroristic in nature, it must meet the following five criteria:
- Willful Threat: Someone willfully threatens to commit a crime resulting in the death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the threat is to be taken as a threat regardless of the intent to actually follow through.
- Clearly, the threat needs to be of a highly dangerous nature. For example, simply threatening to slash someone’s tires, would not likely be considered dangerous enough to be considered a willful threat. For the threat to be considered willful, it can be made in writing, verbally or electronically transmitted.
- Specific Intent: The threat must be made with the specific intent that it be taken as such. Although that may seem like common knowledge, and also redundant, this means that the threat itself is a crime, even if there is no intent to actually carry out what is being threatened.
- Thus, if you threaten to bomb a school, you will still be guilty of this crime whether or not you follow through with your threat. This is true even if you are unarmed and have no means of following through with your threat.
- Unequivocal, Unconditional, and Specific: “The threat is unequivocal, unconditional, and specific, so as to convey a gravity of purpose and immediate prospect of execution.” This very complicated statement is of great importance to the law, so, to simplify, you must satisfy ALL of these requirements:
- Unequivocal: The threat must be a direct statement of what you WILL do, rather than what you CAN do.
- Unconditional: This is a rather gray area, as some courts have directly held that conditional threats (if-then statements such as “if you-then I’ll”) DO qualify. Presumably, the fewer conditions used, the more likely the court is to rule it as a threat.
- Specific: The threat cannot be vague. Vague threats include statements such as, “if you don’t do or not do X, then something bad will happen.”
- Caused Fear: The threat actually caused the victim to fear the thing you threatened. A person must actually believe the threat you made for you to be arrested for it.
- The Fear was Reasonable: The threat must be reasonable. For example, if you threaten to attack a building using your spaceship, it is very unlikely that any reasonable person could reasonably fear this threat.
Does Every State Have a Terrorist Threat Law?
Yes, every state has some version of a terrorist threat law. For example, Missouri only considers a terrorist threat to be one which frightens more than ten people. California, however, holds that the fear caused by a terrorist threat be “sustained,” or held for more than a brief instant.
A Texas statute dealing with terroristic threats states: “a person commits an offense if he threatens to commit any offense involving violence to any person or property with intent to-,” then gives several criteria. One such criteria specifies, an intent to “cause impairment or interruption of public communications, public transportation, public water, gas, or power supply or other public service.”
Additionally, the federal government has also enacted terroristic threat statutes. These are more narrow than state laws and currently punish threats to use weapons of mass destruction, threats to use chemical weapons, and false reports about bombs.
State and federal governments are considered separate sovereigns. Thus, double jeopardy does not apply, meaning you can be charged and punished by both the state and the federal government for the same illegal conduct.
What are the Penalties You Can Face for Making a Terrorist Threat?
Each state has its own set of punishments for the crime of making a terrorist threat. Punishment ranges depend on whether you are charged with a state or federal crime.
Punishments levied upon you can be as little as one year in a county jail. In other instances, especially under federal law, penalties include:
- Punishment up to life in prison (including being placed on a no-fly list if the threat concerns the use of a biological weapon, and was made on an aircraft);
- Punishment up to five years in prison for mailing communications that contain any threat to injure the addressee, or others; or
- Five years in prison for those who lie to law enforcement officials about terrorist hoaxes.
Should I Contact a Lawyer If I am Facing Charges for Terrorism?
In light of the notorious 9/11 terrorist attacks, something as simple as a phoned-in threat of terror can land you in prison for up to twenty years. It is a crime that is not and should not be taken lightly, at either the state or the federal level. You should absolutely seek out a knowledgeable and qualified criminal defense attorney if you have been charged or are facing charges of making terrorist threats.