Terroristic threatening can generally be defined as a threat to commit a violent crime that inflicts severe bodily injury on someone else or does serious damage or harm to property. It must be accompanied by the intent to terrorize another person, cause a building to become evacuated, or incite extreme panic in the general public. 

It also may occur when a person intends their threat to cause serious public terror or inconvenience, or if it is made in reckless disregard of such terror or inconvenience. 

It should be noted, however, that the exact definition will typically vary depending on state and federal laws. For instance, some states have enacted specific terroristic threatening statutes, whereas other states have implemented relatively broad statutes that contain vague definitions. 

Although these laws are commonly conflated with the laws that govern acts of international and domestic terrorism, they actually cover speech-based crimes and can be applied to cases that involve certain criminal offenses, such as domestic violence, hate crimes, and bomb threats.

Can You be Arrested for Making a Terrorist Threat?

As briefly mentioned above, making a terroristic threat may be considered a crime under both state and federal laws. Thus, a person can be arrested and charged for making a terroristic threat. In most cases, however, a terroristic threat is usually charged as a state crime and a defendant will be tried in accordance with state laws. 

In contrast, federal statutes regarding terroristic threats tend to have narrower definitions and requirements than state laws. A defendant is more likely to face federal charges when a threat is sent via the U.S. Postal Service or a federally protected communications channel. A threat is also more likely to fall under federal jurisdiction when it is made against a federal official, institution, service, property, and so on.  

One final important thing to note about making a terroristic threat is that a person can be tried and punished for the same unlawful conduct in both state and federal court. The reason as to why this is possible is because state and federal courts are considered separate sovereigns. Therefore, double jeopardy does not apply. 

What Counts as a Threat Legally? What Are the Elements of a Terroristic Threat?

While the definition of what is considered a terrorist threat varies across both federal and state laws, there are several common elements that all terroristic threat laws typically share. These elements include:

  • That an actual threat was made either as a verbal statement, in a writing, or through some other form of conduct (e.g., body language, social media, etc.);  
  • The threat must be specific and clear. It cannot be vague or ambiguous (note that the individual does not need to specify how they will carry out the threatened action or when they plan on doing the threatened act);
  • The threat must also be reasonable and credible; 
  • The threat must cause terror (note not every state requires that a person experience fear, but it must be a threat that could reasonably instill panic or terror in others); and
  • The offender must have intended to terrorize or inconvenience other persons, or made a threat in reckless disregard of causing such terror or inconvenience to other persons. 

Thus, threats that are made as obvious jokes, are not clearly stated, or would not seem credible or feasible to a reasonable person will most likely not constitute the type of threat required to commit this offense. 

In addition, there may be other elements included in the laws of a particular jurisdiction. For instance, the California statute requires that the threat be “unequivocal, unconditional, and specific,” as opposed to the Texas statute, which is broader and applies to any threat that involves a violent offense with the relevant intent supporting it.

What is First Degree Terroristic Threatening?

As discussed above, the definition of first-degree terroristic threatening will vary in accordance with state and federal statutes. Generally speaking, first-degree terroristic threats are considered the most serious level of charges that a defendant can receive for this offense. 

A defendant who is charged in the first-degree for this crime has usually made some sort of intentional threat that involves using or placing weapons of mass destruction on school or government property. If convicted, the defendant can face criminal fines ranging up to hundreds of thousands of dollars and prison sentences for up to 20 years or longer. 

Finally, it should be noted that some states may classify terroristic threatening as a third-degree crime. Thus, it is important to review the statute in such states because third-degree may equate to the same level of severity as to what other states call first-degree. In other words, state crime classifications can mean the same thing, but may be labeled in reverse. 

Is Terroristic Threatening a Felony?

Depending on the circumstances surrounding a case and the laws of a jurisdiction hearing the matter, a terroristic threat can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. Every state has its own statute that provides the guidelines required to classify an offense as a misdemeanor, felony, or wobbler crime. Felonies are generally considered the most serious out of these three categories of crimes.

For a terroristic threat to be charged as a felony, the defendant must have caused at least a minimum amount of damages to property (e.g., $1,500 or more), death or severe bodily injury to a person, or they are a repeat offender. Defendants who are convicted of making felony terroristic threats can expect to pay heavy fines and serve a prison sentence of at least one year. 

What are the Penalties for Making a Terrorist Threat?

There are several criminal consequences that a defendant may face when charged with terroristic threats. If convicted, legal ramifications may include:

  • Paying hefty fines;
  • Serving a jail or prison sentence;
  • Being put on probation; and/or
  • Having to pay restitution to victims. 

Also, keep in mind that punishments typically correspond with the criminal act committed. For instance, a defendant can expect to receive a harsh punishment (e.g., imprisonment) if the threat terrorized many people, led to severe bodily injuries, and resulted in felony charges. On the other hand, if the offense involved minor damage to property and it is being charged as a misdemeanor, then a convicted defendant will most likely only be ordered to pay a small fine. 

Are There any Defenses?

There are certain defenses that may be available to a defendant who is charged with making a terroristic threat. Some defenses that a defendant may possibly raise include that:

  • The threat was made as a joke;
  • There is insufficient evidence or it is a case of mistaken identity;
  • A reasonable person would not conclude that the threat was credible or possible;
  • The statement was made in the heat of the moment; 
  • The prosecution failed to prove all required elements of the crime; 
  • The individual never intended to terrorize or inconvenience anyone; and 
  • The threat was never actually communicated (either through words or conduct).

Additionally, the type of defense that may apply will be contingent on the facts of a case and the laws of a particular state.

Should I Contact a Lawyer If I am Facing Charges for Terrorism?

Being charged with a terroristic offense is a very serious matter. A conviction of such charges can lead to severe legal consequences, including hefty fines, long prison sentences, and a permanent criminal record. Therefore, if you are facing charges involving a terroristic threat, you should strongly consider hiring a local criminal defense attorney immediately. 

An experienced criminal defense attorney can advise you of your rights and protections as a criminal defendant under the law, determine whether there are any defenses available to raise against the charges, and discuss the potential punishments that you may receive if convicted. Your attorney will also be able to represent you in court and can find out whether there is a way to get the charges filed against you dropped or reduced.