Cruel words from another person don't necessarily constitute a verbal threat under the law. The difference between a criminal act and a lack of courtesy are the specific violent nature of the threat and the creation of fear in the threatened person. The proper word for such a crime is "assault," which can be defined as an intended but unsuccessful battery or an act that creates the immediate apprehension of harm. The latter of these two includes a verbal threat.
For a threat to be a crime, it must be a threat to do physical harm. Threats to murder or cause serious injury to a person are specific enough to be the basis of a crime. Threats to divorce, end a friendship or make trouble for someone are either not physical or not specific enough to constitute a crime. California Penal Code Section 422, like many similar state laws, provides that for a threat to constitute a crime it must be a threat to commit homicide or cause serious physical injury.
Capacity to Carry Out the Crime
Assault often turns on whether the person who makes a threat was in a position to carry out the crime. When a person is two feet away from a person screaming that he intends to kill the person, he is close enough to create a reasonable fear. But if the threatening person is on the other side of the street making the same threat, he is not close enough, and the court will probably hold that he did not have the ability to carry out the crime immediately and therefore an assault was not committed. The person who makes the threat does not have to intend to actually commit the crime as long as he causes a reasonable person to fear for his safety.
While many threats are made to frighten a person because the person making the threats is angry, some threats are made to stop a person from testifying at a trial. These threats can result in lengthy prison sentences. In Michigan, Michigan Penal Code 750.122 prescribes up to 10 years for people who threaten witnesses.
Self-defense should only be used against an actual attack or immediate threat. If someone has shouted a threat of some future harm, you cannot legally use violence against that person in the future. You should employ violence only when you are being attacked or when someone physically close to you has done something that would cause a reasonable person to fear for her safety. A person who is five feet away, cursing at you and brandishing a knife would trigger your right to use violence in self-defense.
Personal Protection Orders
Personal protection orders require a person to stay away from another person. If someone has made a violent threat against you, talk to an attorney about getting a personal protection order.
John Toivonen is an attorney in Lansing, Mich., and has been a professional writer since 1999. His work has appeared in "The Washington Times." He holds a Juris Doctor from Thomas M. Cooley Law School and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Guilford College.