Penal Code section 422 defines criminal threats as “willfully” threatening to kill or injure someone, unequivocally and with sufficient specificity that the recipient of the threat is placed in a state of reasonably “sustained fear” for his immediate safety or that of his or her family. The threat can be communicated verbally, in writing or electronically. The communication must be intended as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out. There must be “an immediate prospect of execution of the threat.”
Holding a knife and telling someone in your presence that you will use it if the person refuses to do something is a good, clear example.
Often, a fired employee tells his or her boss that the boss “better be careful.” This type of comment, however, is not a criminal threat unless there is some context that satisfies the gravity, specificity and immediacy requirements. When the threat does not cause the recipient to experience any fear or the threat is ambiguous, there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution for criminal threats.
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