Issuing threats in writing is a serious charge in Virginia. With the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, this issue is arising more frequently in area courts. While most written speech, even vulgar or distasteful speech, is protected under the First Amendment, certain threatening speech can land you a felony conviction in Virginia.
WHAT IS ILLEGAL WHEN IT COMES TO THREATS?
Va. Code Sec. 18.2-60 makes it a class 6 felony to “knowingly communicate in writing, including electronically transmitted communication producing a visual or electronic message, a threat to kill or do bodily injury to a person, regarding that person or a member of his family, when the threat places such person in reasonable apprehension of death or bodily injury to himself or a family member.” A class six felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine. If there is a threat of violence on the grounds of any school, then the offense is a class 5 felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison.
WHAT IS A THREAT?
Legally speaking, words are only considered a “threat” when, if taken in the context in which they were made, a “reasonable” person would view them as threatening. The case gets much murkier if the alleged “threat” is posted on a public social media platform such as Facebook. Cases have arisen locally of the Commonwealth attempting to prosecute people for music lyrics that a particular individual found threatening.
WHAT DEFENSES DO I HAVE?
The most obvious defense in a written threat case in Virginia is that the words do not actually constitute a “threat” in the legal sense. For instance, cases have been won when it was proven that vulgar or distasteful social media messages were intended to vent anger or frustration rather than threaten a particular individual. These cases can also be attacked by focusing on the last part of the statute requiring a person be placed in “reasonable apprehension” of bodily injury or death. It is often relevant to introduce evidence of prior dealings between the accused and the accuser to show that the words in question would not have been taken literally.
WHY GOFF VOLTIN?
The attorneys at Goff Voltin frequently appear in courts in Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, York County, and across Hampton Roads. We work closely with our clients to develop as much evidence as possible to put any words in question in context. Please call today to schedule a free consultation to discuss your threat in writing case or any other criminal or domestic matter.