A terroristic threat conviction can upend your life.
In fact, terroristic threatening is a felony under state law (Nebraska Statute 28-311.01) and a misdemeanor under federal law.
Penalties vary widely depending on the circumstances and the court’s assessment of your intentions.
The assistance of a seasoned criminal defense attorney is a necessity when you are faced with a terroristic threat charge.
What Constitutes a Terroristic Threat?
What are terroristic threats? Following are a few examples:
- A threat of violence against an individual;
- A threat of violence against a group (calling in a bomb threat to a high school, for example);
- A threat to destroy property (even a vacant building); or
- A vague threat to commit violence or mayhem.
Elements of a Terroristic Threat
Four elements must be present for your behavior to constitute a terroristic threat.
These elements are threat, specificity, reasonability, and intent. A description of each of these elements appears below.
To satisfy this element, you must issue some kind of threat. The threat can be issued verbally or in writing, but it does not need to be expressed in either of these forms.
Even a physical act can constitute a threat if a reasonable person would interpret the act as a threat.
A possible example might be deliberately coughing on someone who knows or believes that you have a communicable respiratory disease such as COVID-19.
The threat must involve the possibility of death, serious injury, or severe property damage. But it doesn’t have to be any more specific than that.
For example, the threat does not have to specify the means by which the violence will be carried out or the date or time of the act.
It does, however, need to be more specific than something like “You’re gonna regret this” or “I’m going to cause you a lot of trouble.”
Your threat must be something that could possibly be accomplished and something that the average person (not necessarily the victim) would believe could reasonably be accomplished.
It is unlikely, for example, that threatening to curse the victim using black magic would be considered a terroristic threat—although it might possibly qualify as intentional infliction of emotional distress if the perpetrator knew that the specific victim would believe such a threat.
To be guilty of the crime of terroristic threatening, your intent must be:
- To terrorize another; or
- To cause the evacuation of a public place.
Alternatively, your intent can satisfy the requirement for terroristic threatening if you act with “reckless disregard” for whether your actions will terrorize someone or cause the evacuation of a public place.
It is no defense against a terroristic threatening charge that you never had any intent to actually carry out the threat. The intent to cause terror is enough.
Penalties for Terroristic Threatening
The penalties for terroristic threatening are highly dependent on the circumstances. In a worst-case scenario, you could face:
- Life imprisonment;
- Tens of thousands of dollars in fines; and
- Restitution to victims of the threats.
Imagine, for example, the difference in seriousness between causing the evacuation of a high school and causing a stampede at a rock concert that resulted in several people being trampled to death.
A skilled criminal defense lawyer is particularly important because of the wide range of possible penalties.
How to Beat a Terroristic Threat Charge: Defense Strategies
There are several ways that you might potentially beat a terroristic threat charge.
Characterizing the Alleged “Threat” as a Simple Exercise of Free Speech
Imagine, for example, that the FBI arrests you for asserting that a particular politician “should be horsewhipped.”
Although many might consider this comment offensive, its hypothetical nature probably puts it in the realm of free speech rather than a terroristic threat, even if you really did make the statement.
Indeed, in some cases, it is difficult to draw the line between a terroristic threat and the simple exercise of First Amendment free speech rights.
It is this tension between public safety and freedom of expression that provides the possibility of a successful defense.
Establishing Reasonable Doubt
Since terroristic threatening is a crime, the prosecution must prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that your defense attorney needs only to demonstrate that there is reasonable doubt about your guilt to win an acquittal.
Perhaps the state’s case is weak enough that your attorney could simply persuade the jury that reasonable doubt exists. This could result in acquittal.
Or, your attorney could seek to actively weaken the state’s case by moving to exclude illegal evidence—such as evidence seized by the police in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.
Without the excluded evidence, the weight of the remaining evidence could turn out to be insufficient to secure a conviction.
If getting a complete acquittal at trial is unlikely, your attorney might be able to negotiate a greatly reduced sentence for you.
For instance, the state could agree to allow you to plead to a lesser charge and lighter sentence to save the prosecution from having to take the case to trial.
You might be able to avoid jail that way. The feasibility of plea bargaining depends greatly on the specific facts of your case and the skill of your lawyer.
Remember that the foregoing defense strategies are not the only possible ways to beat or at least mitigate the consequences of a terroristic threatening charge. Your attorney will advise you of all options available in your case.
Now Is the Time for Action
If you are facing a terroristic threat charge, you cannot afford to delay your response.
The Nebraska criminal justice system moves quickly and mercilessly, and it is brutally competitive. You are going to need an experienced advocate on your side.
When you engage Peterson Criminal Law, Tom Peterson will personally handle your case. He is the founder of the firm, but he will never pass your case down to an associate.
He has successfully defended thousands of clients, and he will put all of his experience to work for you. If you are facing a terroristic threat charge, call us at (402) 509-8070 or contact us online for a free initial consultation.