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Is a Threat Still a Crime if It Were a Hoax?

Concerned man holding tablet

Of course, making a threat against a person or a public space is unlawful, as it places people or property at risk of substantial harm. But what if someone made a threat as a joke and did not intend to carry out the act nor had the means to do so? They aren't likely to face criminal charges for that, right?

Wrong. Making a threat, even if the person only did it as a joke is still illegal. The FBI refers to these as hoax threats and fully investigates. The federal government imposes harsh penalties on anyone found guilty of making a hoax threat.

What Constitutes a Hoax Threat?

A hoax threat is a statement made by a person about some type of harm in the process of being or about to be committed against others or public places. However, the individual knows that no such act is occurring or will occur. Yet, the false statement incites fear and panic in others and causes a law enforcement response.

Examples of hoax threats include:

  • Posting pictures online while holding a firearm and claiming to be preparing for a shooting at some location
  • Making a false report that a bomb or other incendiary devices have been placed at a specific location
  • Falsely claiming to have COVID and the individual saying that they are going to spread it

Various reasons exist as to why hoax threats are made. It could be that the individual is seeking revenge, exerting control, or looking for attention.

Recent events and activities likely have led to more hoax threats. The last couple of years have been especially hard as people deal with the negative effects (e.g., burnout, frustration, anxiety, stress, and depression) of a global pandemic.

Social media has also made it easy to distribute false information to a large audience. In some cases, the misinformation being spread contains the hoax threat itself. In others, it encourages individuals to engage in threat-related conduct. For example, earlier this month, a social media challenge was circulated involving violence against schools. In response, schools across the nation either closed or beefed-up security to keep students, staff, and faculty safe.

What's Law Enforcement's Response to Hoax Threats?

Although people and property are not necessarily in danger because of a hoax threat, local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities still take them seriously. The reason is that, when what appears to be a credible threat is made, officials must address it. Officers are dispatched to the location to mitigate the threat, draining limited resources and costing taxpayers' dollars.

However, it's not just the amount of resources that must be used that makes hoax threats serious matters.

A threat against a person or a place is a public safety issue:

  • First, it can disrupt the proceedings occurring within the area under threat.
  • Second, it can cause the people affected by the threat to suffer stress and anxiety.
  • Third, it can unnecessarily place responders at risk.

What Are the Penalties for a Hoax Threat?

A hoax threat is typically pursued as a federal crime, as they usually involve the transmission of a threat through text, email, or social media, which affects interstate commerce. And while the statement of harm is a joke, the federal government does not see it that way. It will still pursue the individual as if they had made an actual threat.

The law a person may be prosecuted under and the potential penalties depend on the facts of the case.

For instance, if a person threatens to injure another, they may be charged under 18 U.S.C. § 875, which prohibits threats through interstate communications. If convicted, the individual faces up to 5 years of imprisonment and/or a fine.

Providing false or misleading information about certain activities taking place that others would reasonably believe as true is a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1038. Like 18 U.S.C. § 875, a conviction for this offense can lead to up to 5 years of imprisonment and/or a fine. However, the maximum prison term increases to 20 years if serious injury resulted, or life if death resulted.

Call a Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you have been accused of a hoax threat or any other internet crime, reach out to Friedman Nemecek Long & Grant, L.L.C., L.L.C. Attorneys at Law. We have extensive experience defending individuals against various charges and know how to seek results.

To schedule a consultation with a member of our Cleveland team, please call us at (216) 928-7700 or contact us online today.