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  • Writer's pictureBlair Goss

Can You Threaten to Sue Someone? | California Law

It may not seem like it, but any threat can be considered a crime. Under California law, the threatened person has the legal right to file a lawsuit. If successful, the person convicted can face several consequences, including jail time.

A "threat," according to California law, is considered a willful act. It happens when a person threatens to either inflict "unlawful injury" or cause the death of another one.

These threats can be made in writing, verbally, or through "electronic communication," which includes devices like smartphones, computers, and others. In most cases, a reasonable person would fear for his or her own safety after getting threatened, which opens the door to legal consequences for the other party.

The following page covers everything about criminal threats under California law, including when to seek legal action and which potential consequences the other person can face for trying to threaten another one with a lawsuit.

Is It Illegal to Threaten to Sue Someone in California?

Is It Illegal to Threaten to Sue Someone in California?

Yes. Under California's Penal Code, Section 422, those who threaten a person (or their immediate family) could be charged with a criminal offense.

This will happen if the threat results in the person's reasoned and sustained fear for their safety.

It's important to note that California will treat each criminal threat case equally, whether it comes from a criminal law firm in Sacramento, debtor, or public member. In the case of public members, for example, threatening to press charges against another person to gain an advantage over them can be considered attempted extortion.

Lawyers who threaten other parties to initiate criminal charges to gain advantage from that can also be charged. Here, the lawyer risks getting a disciplinary measure (or worse). They explain what the duress law in California is.

One of the most common cases involving this act is when a debt collector demands money from their client. Usually, it's illegal for the collector to threaten to sue the other person if they don't pay on time, at least if the threat caused the person to experience reasonable fear.

What Can a Person Be Charged with for Their Criminal Threat?

It depends on the severity of the threat and the prosecutors involved in the case. Typically, a threat will be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

Prosecutors must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant sent/delivered a threat to a person, their personal property, or a third person. Moreover, they have to prove that it was severe enough that it conveyed to the person "an immediate prospect of execution" of said threat.

People who get arrested for a misdemeanor could face up to one year of county jail time. They may also have to pay up to $1,000 in fines. Those who get convicted of a felony, however, could face up to three or four years in prison and pay up to $10,000 in fines.

A conviction under Penal Code 422 is considered a strike under the "Three-Strike Law" from California. Those convicted under PC 422 must serve at least 85% of their prison term before being eligible for release.

When Can a Threat Be Deemed a Criminal Act?

There are certain "scenarios" that must be met for a threat to be considered a criminal act. The best way to know is to talk to a legal professional and let them evaluate the case.

Here's a list of the cases where a threat could be considered severe enough to warrant a lawsuit:

  • The threat was sent verbally, in writing, or through any kind of electronic communication.

  • The threat involved a severe intent to cause injury to someone (or kill them).

  • The statement is intended to sound like a threat.

  • The person making the threat is physically able to carry out the threat.

  • The threatened person fears for their safety (or the safety of the people around them).

If the message/statement contains all of the elements mentioned above, the threatened person will have a potential case to file against the other party. A threat to sue someone else may not necessarily include all these elements, which is why it's important to check with a legal professional first.

Does Cyberbullying Count as a Criminal Threat?

Technically, yes. Cyberbullying is already treated as a crime under several sections of California's Penal Code, including sections 652, 646, 528, and others.

However, cyberbullying could be treated as a crime under Penal Code 422 if the threat was sent through an electronic channel and said message caused the other person to fear for their safety, even if the threat involved a potential lawsuit.

Other Related Offenses That Could Be Considered a Criminal Threat

Any kind of threat is completely wrong under the law, but there are a few cases where it may not seem so evident if the threat includes all the elements to be considered an offense.

Here are a couple of other scenarios where a lawsuit may apply:

  • A person threatens their spouse or partner to cause them harm (or sue) while having a weapon in their hand. This may involve additional criminal charges, even if the threat was to the person's immediate family.

  • A person threatens to sue their colleagues, managers, or bosses over a dispute. Depending on the severity of the threat, the guilty party could be fined, jailed, or both.

Potential Defenses the Charged Person Can Use

In some cases, the person who made the threat can contest the other party's argument. If they're successful with their defense, it's possible they could avoid getting convicted.

Some of the most common defenses available to those people include the following:

  • The threat was too vague to cause an immediate threat. If the threat didn't cause sustained fear of an immediate execution, then it may get dismissed.

  • The person can argue that the "victim" wasn't in fear because of the threat.

  • The person can contest that no reasonable person would become afraid of such a threat.

  • The person can state that the message was covered under the constitutional protection of free speech.

  • Finally, the person can simply argue that they're being falsely accused.

In other words, a person will not be guilty of making a criminal threat if it isn't immediate. They won't be guilty either if the threat is too ambiguous or overly vague, it didn't cause fear in the other person, or it wasn't communicated in one of the three aforementioned channels.

Even though these are reasonable defenses the person can make, they won't necessarily absolve them of the claim. As long as the victim can prove that all the elements mentioned on this page were present in the threat, the guilty party is at risk of facing severe penalties.

The Importance of Having Legal Counsel Available

The Importance of Having Legal Counsel Available

Even the smallest threat can lead to potential legal consequences, so it's recommended to avoid making them altogether.

Those who get accused of making a criminal threat should get legal help as soon as possible. In some cases, the person may be able to defend themself and avoid jail time and/or fines.

It's not recommended for the person to respond to these claims without a lawyer, as this will lower the chances of them making a better argument.

Professional lawyers can evaluate the case and determine whether the victim truly has a case or not. They can also help their client gather enough evidence to fight the claim correctly. They can advise on questions like Is intimidation illegal in California?

On the contrary, those who receive a threat from someone else, no matter who it is, are encouraged to seek legal action if it makes them feel afraid. Even if the threat isn't true, the victim may have a right to recover damages.

Those who receive a threat must know how to respond to get the upper hand if they plan on filing a lawsuit. Here are a few tips to consider:

If the threat comes through an electronic channel, such as text or email, it's important to read every line carefully and understand what the intent/context of the message is. In most cases, it will be easy to determine if the message intends to threaten someone.

It's also important for the person to check the sender of the message to see if they know them. If the victim knows the sender and identifies the message as a potential threat, they

must seek legal help. A professional from Goss Law will be able to make things clear as fast as possible.

Bottom Line

Threatening someone is considered a serious crime in California and many other states. Whether the threat is associated with extortion or any other offense, the charged person could face plenty of consequences even if they didn't mean to do anything.

Of course, threatening with a lawsuit does seem "harmless" compared to other threats related to injury or death, but since it can still cause fear in the victim, there may be grounds for a lawsuit there.

Those involved in a criminal threat lawsuit will need legal help to navigate every detail. Threatening to sue will be considered a serious offense, and not having a professional to help will result in the defendant's conviction most of the time.

The professionals at Goss Law are committed to giving clients in Sacramento, California, the assistance they need to navigate and solve these cases. Those interested in knowing more about the team can request a free consultation today.


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