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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Should Pennsylvania Give “Terroristic Threats” a New Name?

On Behalf of | May 11, 2013 | Terroristic Threats

“Terroristic Threats” is such a common offense in Pennsylvania, that pretty much everyone in the Commonwealth has heard of this crime, and most Pennsylvanians have a pretty good idea of what it entails. Pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2706(a)(1), terroristic threats is defined as making either a direct or indirect threat to commit a crime of violence, with the intent of terrorizing another person. Thus, threatening to slash someone’s tires is not a terroristic threat, but threatening to slash someone’s throat is a terroristic threat.

Threatening to commit a crime of violence is a criminal offense in every state, as far as I know, but should we call this offense “terroristic threats,” when it rarely has anything to do with terrorism? Sure, calling in a bomb threat to a school could logically be called a terroristic threat, but a hothead threatening to kick his neighbor’s ass over a dog feces-related dispute is in no way a form of terrorism.

Problems arise when a person charged with or convicted of terroristic threats applies for a job or tries to pass through customs. People from outside Pennsylvania naturally assume that “terroristic threats” has something to do with terrorism. If a hotheaded guy happens to be of Arab or Persian descent or has a Muslim name, that assumption is only reinforced. Due to possible future misunderstandings, defense attorneys like me now seek to avoid terroristic threats convictions whenever possible. For example, we might pursue a plea agreement to a similar charge like “simple assault by physical menace,” or disorderly conduct, rather than risk the serious collateral consequences, should the client be convicted of terroristic threats at trial.

When the terroristic threats statute was first written, terrorism was not on people’s minds. If a law banning threats of violence were created today from scratch, no one would think of calling it something, which could be confused with terrorism. Instead, it would be called something like “violent threats” or “threat to commit crime of violence.” The Global War on Terrorism is not going to end anytime soon, so terrorism will remain on the forefront of the public conscience. Therefore, Pennsylvania should seriously consider renaming “terroristic threats” as something more accurately reflecting what the crime generally entails: someone with anger management issues making a threat during a socially inappropriate temper tantrum.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, who has represented numerous people charged with terroristic threats over the years. None of these people were remotely associated with terrorism.

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