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What to Do If Someone Threatens You

Being seriously threatened with bodily harm is not only scary, it can be confusing. Whether you know the person making the threat or not, it may be difficult to assess when a threat requires you to take action to protect yourself. Also, credible threats can be made electronically through social media, which adds to the potential confusion. However, making threats, particularly threats of physical harm, is illegal, and aggressors could face criminal as well as civil consequences.

Irrespective of the medium of the threat, if you believe the threat is real, serious, and/or the person threatening you has the ability to carry out the threat, you can call the police to report the threat. If you are unsure about the credibility of the threat, you can still report it to the police. If a threat occurs in real life, not online or electronically, then escaping the situation should be your first priority. After reaching safety, you can call the police to report the threat.

Criminal and Civil Remedies

Each state has their own criminal laws against making threats and harassment. If a threat is determined to be credible by the police, then they may be able to arrest the aggressor, who could then face criminal charges for making the threat. Although making threats is generally a misdemeanor offense, it is a serious offense and frequently results in jail time if a defendant is convicted.

In addition to a civil lawsuit for monetary damages stemming from emotional distress or other losses, a victim can also pursue a civil harassment, or domestic violence, restraining order. A restraining order is a court order that authorizes law enforcement to arrest an aggressor named in the order merely for coming within a specific distance (such as 100 feet) of the protected individual.

What's a Credible Threat?

If someone threatens to harm you, such as with violence, or via the destruction of property, if the threat is believable/credible, it's criminal. Generally, law enforcement must determine whether a threat is credible before they take action. In the digital age we live in, this can be incredibly difficult given the vast amount of vitriol online.

To be a credible threat, there needs to be some context that makes the victim, or a reasonable person in the victim's shoes, believe the aggressor is serious and able to carry the threat out. However, in some cases, if credibility cannot be determined, a threaten-er can still be arrested, even for a Facebook threat. 

While in person threats generally must be credible, online threats, or general public statements, sometimes don't need credibility so much as a likelihood of causing distress or harm. This is well illustrated by University of London student who was prosecuted for using the hashtag #killallwhitemen on Twitter.

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