The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Kline, holding that a person can commit the crime of terroristic threats by using a hand gesture. This decision is significant because it makes it easier for the Commonwealth to prove that a defendant committed the crime of terroristic threats even where the defendant has not said anything explicitly threatening.
Commonwealth v. Kline
In Kline, the complainant and the defendant lived relatively close to one another in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. According to the complainant, the defendant never left his property. Prior to the day in question, the defendant would follow the complainant up and down her long driveway before and after work while staring at her. According to the complainant, the defendant would routinely stare at her with a flat affect and watch her and her family as they entered and exited their home. It is unclear whether the defendant ever spoke to the complainant or her family while they were neighbors.
Per the complainant, the defendant’s actions were very unsettling. His actions caused her to be on “heightened alert [and] concerned as to what he might do next.” On February 25, 2017, the day in question, the complainant arrived at her home with her six-year-old daughter. The defendant then proceeded to walk up to her car, put his hands up, and imitate firing a gun at the complainant. The complainant stated that the defendant’s actions “scared [them] to death.” Immediately after this occurred, the complainant went to the Pennsylvania State Police to report the incident. She also stated that her daughter begged her not to take her home. The defendant was arrested and charged with terroristic threats.
In addition to the complainant, the state trooper also testified at the defendant’s trial. He testified that the complainant looked “terrorized” and “distraught” after her interaction with the defendant. The defendant also testified at trial. He stated that he gestured with his thumb and pointer finger as a way to say “hello, hey how are you doing?” to the person in a car. He also stated that he did not recall ever staring at the victim on prior occasions when she would walk to and from her home. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty. At sentencing, he was sentenced to 3-23 months’ imprisonment, fined $500 and immediately paroled. The defendant then filed a timely appeal arguing that because his non-verbal gesture was not accompanied by any type of verbal communication, the evidence was not sufficient to convict him.
What is the Crime of Terroristic Threats?
18 Pa C.S.A. § 2706 is the statute that governs the crime of terroristic threats. A person is guilty of terroristic threats if the person communicates, either directly or indirectly, a threat to: 1) commit any crime of violence with the intent to terrorize another; 2) cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly or facility of public transportation; or 3) otherwise cause serious public inconvenience, or cause terror or serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience. Direct communication is not required for the Commonwealth to convict a defendant of this crime.
The purpose of this statute is to prevent the psychological distress that follows from an invasion of another’s sense of personal security. The crime of terroristic threats is not meant to criminalize threats that arise out of anger during a dispute. As such, courts are supposed to look at the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a defendant has uttered a terroristic threat. It is important to note that just because a defendant is angry does not mean they will be acquitted of the charge of terroristic threats. Additionally, one’s ability to carry out said threat is not relevant to whether the person committed the crime of terroristic threats nor is the victim’s subjective belief about the ability of the threat to be carried out.
In practice, the Commonwealth will routinely charge someone with terroristic threats if a defendant utters something that could be reasonably construed as a threat. The Commonwealth has significant incentive to do so. For one, terroristic threats is a misdemeanor of the first degree. If a defendant is found guilty of that charge, a judge has five years to work with when fashioning a sentence for him or her. Additionally, it is a relatively easy crime to prove. Unlike other crimes that have a specific intent mens rea, terroristic threats only require that the Commonwealth prove that the defendant acted recklessly when making these assertions. Further, as a result of the decision in Kline, the Commonwealth will have an easier time of proving this charge in future prosecutions where the defendant makes a non-verbal gesture.
The Superior Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction for the charge of terroristic threats. In upholding his conviction, the Superior Court noted that a communication does not have to be direct to uphold a conviction for terroristic threats. The Superior Court went on to say that while some non-verbal gestures will not be sufficient to sustain a conviction, in this case, when combined with the defendant’s past behavior towards the complainant, the evidence was sufficient to satisfy the communication prong of the charge. Further, the record supported that the complainant experienced psychological distress because of the defendant’s actions. The complainant testified that she was under duress because of the defendant’s actions and the state trooper corroborated this by testifying that she looked terrorized. The Superior Court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to convict the defendant of terroristic threats, and his conviction will remain in effect.
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