Is it legal to threaten someone?

I just got into an argument with someone who insists forcefully that it’s perfectly legal to threaten somebody else – the exact words were “you can tell someone you’re going to kill him; you can tell him HOW you’re going to kill him; and you can follow him around on the street.”

I tried to argue otherwise, but I lack the legal grounding to even know what to look up. But this sounds like complete crap to me. It seems self-evident that society would cease to function if it were true.

I’ve heard of “assault” being a threat the target believes may be imminently carried out (and assuming the person I was talking to is right and one CAN threaten people legally as long as one follows certain rules, I’m not sure how one could threaten to kill someone without running the risk they’d believe it was “imminent” and thus blundering into “assault.”)

I’ve heard of convictions for “making a terroristic threat”; my disputant claimed that was only if one threatens to use explosives.

I’ve heard of “putting in fear” but don’t know what the distinction is.

Presumably these would be state offenses, not federal, if threatening is (as I suspect) an offense at all; and this vary by jurisdiction? Still, it seems implausible to me that it’s legal to go around publicly threatening to kill people. My jurisdiction would be the greater Washington DC area (including Maryland and Virginia).

My thinking is that the person I was talking to has seen to many cases dropped for lack of evidence, or too many “he said/she said” arguments, and made the mistake of assuming that because it was not considered a solid enough case to prove in court, it is “permitted.”

I tried to search the Straight Dope, but putting a phrase in quotes does not seem to work; it found any post with “legal” in it even without “threaten”, and vice-versa.

I looked through a website on Virginia code, but I was doing a lot of scrolling without seeing anything that directly addressed one person threatening the life or limb of another; I was wandering through property law, evictions, and that sort of thing.

If there’s a better/easier way to find out this sort of thing, please educate me.

In the meantime, what’s the Straight Dope on the legality of threats and following/harassing/scaring people?

No idea about your country, but in the UK it is a crime to make threats to kill, I’ve read of a case or two where it was mentioned as a charge. Wouldn’t know about general threatening though.

It’s a misdemeanor in North Carolina:

This is not legal advice.

I am not licensed in Virginia, but a quick google found this:

18.2-60 Virginia Criminal Code

It seems to require some form of writing unless directed at a school official, but I suspect there may be other code sections dealing with oral threats.

I’ll likely miss the edit window, so here’s more:


*If any person shall, in the presence or hearing of another, curse or abuse such other person, or use any violent abusive language to such person concerning himself or any of his relations, or otherwise use such language, under circumstances reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace, he shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor. *

And a link to a table of contents for Virginia’s Criminal Code:

found here

Threatening to harm someone is assault.

Harming someone is battery.

(U.S., here)

Edit: Taking any action that makes a person feel threatened is, by definition, assault (as I understand it).

In Oregon, someone in a car threatened to mow me down. I called 911, who told me that this was not illegal.

Its not legal in NH:

Just because a 911 dispatcher (many who probably make 9 or 10 bucks an hour, none of whom have been to law school) tells you something, I am sure that you know it dosent make it factually true.

I would bet that threatening to run someone over with an automobile is a crime in all 50 states in the USA…

I think this is exactly correct.

The precise law will be different in each state, but I believe that in most cases it will hinge on whether the threatened person reasonably believes that the threat will be carried out.



Threatening someone is the crime of assault and the tort of assault. The tort of assault is a civil matter. Supposedly this requires putting someone in immediate fear of harm, but a judge and jury would probably count phone calls and letters as within the definition and be upheld by a modern appellate court.

It appears to be a federal crime in the United States.

For example, in December, a well-known neo-Nazi was convicted on four counts of threatening individuals, as summarised here: Virginia Neo-Nazi Convicted on Threat Charges:

And, the jury is currently deliberating in a federal District Court in New Jersey, where a radio show “shock jock” is facing charges of threatening three federal judges in Chicago: U.S. Judges Testify in a Death Threat Case.

I’ve asked this before with no reasonable response. What if the threat is conditional and “reasonable”? For instance, someone may have been menacing your child. You say, "If I see you touch my child again, I will beat you up.

AFAIC, this should be perfectly legal to say.

However, saying, “If you wear a blue shirt, I will beat you up” shouldn’t be legal.

Simple assault is not a federal crime, but certain circumstances can involve federal jurisdiction. Threats against the federal judiciary, for instance.

It is illegal in Sweden too, to threaten somebody. As far as I know, as of recently, it is illegal to indirectly threaten somebody in some circumstances; for instance, if a couple of guys from Hells Angels put on their vests and ring somebody’s door bell and says that so-and-so wants the money you owe him, it is a considered a threat. If the same guys leaves the vests at home, it is not.

I don’t see the difference here. In both cases you’re threatening someone with an illegal act.

You can threaten something legal - “I’ll call thecops” or " I’ll sue"

We have a court system that involves juries and judges to determine these legalities.

If you can convince a jury saying ‘If I see you touch my child again, I will beat you up.’ is a reasonable thing to say it is not a crime.

If a prosecutor can convince the jury saying “If you wear a blue shirt, I will beat you up” is a crime you will be sentenced for it.

Someone on this board explained very simply ‘law is not an algebraic equation.’ If you do x the result is not always y. Our trial by peers determines what the results of x will be on a case by case basis.

That’s a pretty serious misunderstanding of the jury system.