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Criminal Penalties for Murder Threats

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

We all know you can't threaten to kill the president. But what about a normal person? Or a whole race of people? Does it matter if it was on social media? And do emojis count?

While the First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, certain speech, like threatening to kill someone, can be a step too far. Here are the penalties you could face for murder threats.

True Threats

Federal law prohibits transmitting "any threat to injure the person of another" and penalizes such threats with five years in prison. But not all threats are created equally, and the Supreme Court has determined that only "true threats" can be punished. This generally means that the threat must be credible and specific enough that a reasonable person would be threatened.

But the Court will also look at the mentality of the person making the threat. Recently, the Court held that a man could not be convicted for violent Facebook posts unless he specifically intended them as threats. Anthony Douglas Elonis wrote "There¹s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you" to his ex-wife pointed out that there are "Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined," but argued that these were merely similar to rap lyrics and weren't intended as threats.

Credible Threats

State laws also prohibit threats in specific circumstances. For instance one girl in Colorado was arrested for posting a gun emoji to social media with the caption, "I have a gun in my backpack." Two other Colorado girls face felony charges of conspiracy to commit murder over an unspecified threat to a school. Under Colorado law, knowingly conveying a threat to cause death to a student, school official, or any employee of an educational institution is a class 1 misdemeanor and could mean 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Most states have similar statutes regarding murder threats, though the specifics may vary. If you've been accused, arrested, or charged with making death threats, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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