This past summer, the California Supreme Court ruled in San Francisco that a menacing nonverbal gesture does not qualify as a criminal threat under state law. The court issued its ruling in the case of a Riverside County man, Mario Gonzalez, who was accused of making threats with hand gestures toward an off-duty police officer while he was sitting at a restaurant patio with four friends, back in 2013.
Gonzalez was accused of making a “JT” hand sign, which was a symbol of a California gang known as “Jackson Terrace,” and then used his hands to simulate a gun, which he pointed at the cop and his friends. The officer claims the gesture frightened him, and Gonzalez was charged by the district attorney with five counts of making a criminal threat.
CA Penal Code § 422 – 422.4 is the state statute that governs criminal threats. It was last amended by the Legislature in 1998 to include electronic threats. California law makes it a crime to “threaten death or serious bodily injury with a statement “made verbally, in writing or by means of an electronic communication device.”
Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the court’s ruling that the phrase “made verbally” refers to actual words, written or spoken, and not to gestures. “Nothing in logic or reason allows us to interpret “made verbally” to include nonverbal conduct,” she wrote. This is not the first time that Penal Code § 422 has been found to be lacking clarity. The court noted it would be up to the state’s legislature to include symbolic nonverbal gestures to make menacing hand gestures a crime. ee People v. Gonzalez, No. S223763, 2017 WL 2376597, at *1 (Cal. June 1, 2017) quoting People v. Scott (2014) 58 Cal.4th 1415, 1421.
As a result, the criminal threat charges were dismissed.
The Current Standard for “Threats”
Criminal threats can be either a gross misdemeanor or felony in California, depending on the circumstances and severity. Prosecutors have the discretion to decide. The standard test is that they must prove the person you ‘threatened’ had a reasonable fear for his or her safety under the circumstances.
This means, for example, if a person responds by saying “I’m not scared of you,” that would be helpful for your defense. Continue reading