Is it illegal to tell someone you will kill them?

I heard a story about a woman who is in the process of trying to divorce her husband because of his abusive behavior and cheating on her in front of her.

She started getting strange credit card bills in the mail with names of people she had never heard of, but shared her last name. When she asked her husband what these bills were all about, it came out that he had apparently made 5 fake credit cards and was using them to buy stuff. This is obviously illegal. The woman said that she was going to report him for this illegal activity. His reply was, “If you report me, I am going to put a bullet in your head, and you won’t be able to do a damn thing about it. I have a gun!”…

Here is the question(s).

(1) Is this woman required to report his illegal activities even if it may endanger herself?

(2) Is it illegal for him to say that he will kill her if she reports him? if so what is the charge?


Not aware of federal law, but I think alot depends on state law you reside on.

WAG, terrorist threat.


  1. She certainly should be able to get a restraining order to protect her.

  2. Knowledge of criminal activity can be prosecuted as an accessory, however, the fact that they’re currently married means often that she wouldn’t be required to testify against him, so I don’t know how that one would wash out (see point #4)

  3. Depending on the state that she’s in, the specific threat may be charged. State of MI has the strongest stalker law around and it includes the use of a verbal threat of violence.

  4. She certainly is in need of professional legal counsel (and not on a message board).

A “terroristic threat” charge might not stick. I think most states require that the threat be overheard by a third person. (Discourages false reports of threats.)

The “stalking” statutes (depending on the state) might provide a remedy. She could definitely get a restraining order, but that might provide little comfort to her.

An angry gentleman was pounding on the door of my house one evening demanding to talk to somone who was hiding from him at my house. I told him through the door to do away or I’d call the cops. He said, “If you call the cops, I’ll break your f*cking neck.” I called the cops. He was charged with “Communicating a Threat”. This was in North Carolina. You may have a similar law where you live.

Note: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. That said:

(1) Wring’s points 1 and 2 are on the mark here.

(2) The crime of “Terroristic Threats” may apply, depending on the state(s) in which the threat(s) occurred:

As an example, here is the relevant Pennsylvania statute (in part):

Title 18, Chapter 27 (Assaults), § 2706. Terroristic threats.

Offense defined. A person commits the crime of terroristic threats if the person communicates, either directly or indirectly, a threat to:

– commit any crime of violence with intent to terrorize another;
– cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transportation; or
– otherwise cause serious public inconvenience, or cause terror or serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience.

Grading.–An offense under subsection (a) constitutes a misdemeanor of the first degree.

Definition.–As used in this section, the term “communicates” means conveys in person or by written or electronic means, including telephone, electronic mail, Internet, facsimile, telex and similar transmissions.

The person to whom the threats were made would need to have some evidence to warrant prosecution of the specific charge.

No matter what the outcome, the person mentioned in the OP really should obtain legal counsel or contact the authorities ASAP.

Oh yeah. Two other people heard the exchange between the angry gentleman and little old me.

  1. As long as the woman is still legally married to the man, she’s likely clear on not reporting, as she’s not required to testify against her husband.

  2. In addition to Terroristic Threats, Threatening to kill someone is also Assault, as long as the threat is credible. Any attempt to carry out the threat that results in contact with the victim is Battery, even if no actual harm is done.

I’m not sure an assault charge would stick, either. To constitute an assault there must be a threat to commit physical injury, coupled with an apparent present ability to carry out the threat.

So if the guy threatened to “put a bullet in her head,” it would not constitute an assault unless he was either holding a gun at the time or had one within reach. (IMHO).

In the state of Oregon, telling someone you are going to kill them, and the person feels his/her life is in danger, is a low level felony called “menacing”.

Just saying “I am going to kill you if [somethig else happens]” is not an assault.
The man could not get arrested for this. What she should do is get an injunction against him. Though such a threat is not arrestable, it should be enough to get an injunction. Then she could have him arrested if he got anywhere near him!

spoke, your interperation of assault is correct. (at least in Florida)

Tranquilis, your explanation (at least in Florida) is not entirely correct.
An attempt to carry out a threat would not always be battery. For instance:
If I say “I am going to shoot you” (and I do have a gun)
Then I shoot at you and miss
Though I made a threat and I attempted to carry it out, there is no charge of battery because there was no contact. The correct charge would be aggravated assault.

Had I shot and actually did hit you with the bullet, the correct charge would be aggravated battery.
And, BTW, neither siuation could get a charge of murder or attempted murder. (I know you did not say that, but I feel like adding it)

I dont believe my first sentence was very clear…

Even if a person has a gun in his hand pointed at your head, and he says “I am going to shoot you tomorrow”, or “I am going to shoot you if you tell the cops”- this is still not assault since there is no immediate threat.
The correct charge would be ‘Wreckless display of a firearm’.

Since the threat is made to prevent her from doing what she has a legal right to do (report his fraud) it might also constitute “coercion” (blackmail,extortion, whatever it’s called locally).

I dunno about Florida (despite having lived there for several years, until just recently), but in Maryland, the law was applied as I described it, when I was menaced. The individual in question went down for 3 years for Assault, and one year for Battery (concurrent). I may have missed the bit about having the imediate capability to carry out the threat (which he certainly did), but I don’t recall that being addressed at the hearing. Assault for threatening to kill me, battery for actually placing a gun to my head.

To (1): A spouse is never required to rat out his or her spouse. Spousal privilege and all that.

To (2): It is illegal (in most jurisdictions) to make a threat to harm or kill another person. I recently had cause to research this rather thoroughly with California law. The basic statute (there are lots of anti-threat statutes in California, but most of the cases are under a single statute) requires that a credible threat to cause harm be communicated to the victim such that the victim is reasonably placed in fear. If the communication does not reach the victim, but if it had would reasonably have caused fear, the charge is attempted terroristic threat.

Conditional threats (“I will kill you unless you X” or “I will kill you if you X”) are still threats and are still punishable. The gravamen of the offense is whether the victim of the threat is reasonably placed in fear by the threat (or, for attempted threat, would have been placed in fear had the threatening communication been received and understood).

The “immediate capacity to carry out the threat” language is from the common law tort of assault, which has not a thing to do with modern criminal law. Immediate capacity to carry out a threat is not required; there are convictions on record for terroristic threat where the victim was in a different continent at the time, and (in a separate case) where the offender was in police custody at the time the threat was made.

Be careful about using concepts from the tort law such as the offenses of tortious assault and tortious battery when talking about the criminal law. The criminal law has diverged quite a bit from tort law, and offenses with similiar or even identical names often have substantially different elements.

KellyM, what about the issue of ‘intent’? That’s very important as lots of people say that in jest.

As I recall, the California statute requires that the offender intend to cause fear. When the threat is made “in jest” there is no intent to cause fear and thus no offense. In addition, most “in jest” threats are not credible (so “If you don’t give me a million dollars right now, I’ll shoot you with my phaser” is not a terroristic threat because it’s not credible), and most do not meet the requirement of reasonably causing fear in the victim.

Six months ago I could have been more detailed, but I no longer have access to Westlaw and cannot pull up cases out of the California Court of Appeals at will.


[quot]As I recall, the California statute requires that the offender intend to cause fear. When the threat is made “in jest” there is no intent to cause fear and thus no offense.

Well, I assume the California statute is much like the Montana one, because Montana code is based on California code. (Okay, based on it a long time ago, but still.) I think our definition of assault is fairly run-of-the-mill, and it is as follows:

(This, BTW, is the definition for misdemeanor (or simple) assault; not felony assault.) So, in answer to HANDY’S question, yes, you have to intend to either hurt someone or put them in fear of being hurt, unless you’re using a weapon (in which case you can negligently assault them (a misdemeanor); assault with both a weapon and intent is a felony). The question of having the apparent means to carry out the threat goes to the issue of whether the “apprehension of bodily injury” was “reasonable” or not; certainly you don’t need to have the instrumentality right there with you for the threat to be credible.

In my jurisdiction, I believe the charge of threatening to kill a spouse would be assault (as set out above) or intimidation (the equivalent of “menacing”). I don’t think it would be stalking, which at least here requires repeated conduct. We have no specific crime for “issuing a terroristic threat.”

Jody, the California offense I was referring to is not the offense of assault, but rather the offense of terroristic threat. California also has an assault statute (I think) but most threats are prosecuted under the terroristic threat statute. Different offenses, different elements. The conduct discussed in the OP clearly (IMO) violates the California terroristic threat statute. I can’t discuss Montana law as I have never researched it.

The California offense of “terroristic threat” is analogous to (but not identical with) the New York offense of “menacing”, so this offense may be known as “menacing” in your jurisdiction.

Ah. In my defense, I don’t think that was clear from HANDY’S question and your response. Unlike California, you will not be surprise to learn that such conduct is prosecuted as a simple assault here, because this jurisdiction doesn’t have the offense of “issuing terroristic threats.” Given our late situation with the Freemen, we have several statutes dealing with intimidation of public officials and with issuance of false threats, but nothing on “terroristic threats” per se.

What?? How can that be?? Surely Montana law comes up constantly. :slight_smile:

Nope, no “menacing,” either. Assault, intimidation, or (arguably) spousal abuse appear to be the available choices here.