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Washington Court Discusses “True Threats” in Domestic Violence Cases

Domestic violence crimes are not limited to physical acts of violence, but also include stalking, cyberstalking, and harassment over the telephone. While a wide array of behavior may give rise to a domestic violence offense, a common element of domestic violence crimes is harm, whether it is actual harm or an actual or perceived threat of harm. Thus, if during a trial for a domestic violence crime, the jury is not properly instructed regarding the elements of the crime, it may violate the defendant’s Constitutional rights. This was discussed in a recent Washington appellate court opinion in which the court reversed the defendant’s convictions for cyberstalking and telephone harassment due to improper jury instructions. If you are faced with accusations that you committed a domestic violence offense, it is in your best interest to consult a skillful Washington domestic violence defense attorney to discuss your case.

Factual Background

Allegedly, the defendant sent a series of texts to the victim, who was his ex-girlfriend that lived in another part of the State, asking her if she wanted to engage in sexual conduct with him and his friends, calling her demeaning terms, and threatening to follow her. Later that day, he broke into the victim’s home and set two fires. He was arrested and charged with multiple domestic violence crimes, including telephone harassment and cyberstalking. Following a jury trial, he was convicted. He appealed, arguing in part that the trial court violated his First Amendment rights by failing to instruct the jury on the definition of a “true threat.” The appellate court agreed and reversed and remanded his convictions for cyberstalking and telephone harassment.

The Definition of a True Threat for Cyberstalking and Telephone Harassment Charges

On appeal, the State conceded that the jury was not instructed on the definition of a true threat for the crimes of cyberstalking and telephone harassment, but argued that a true threat was not an essential component of those crimes. Conversely, the defendant argued that the failure to provide the jury with such instructions allowed the jury to convict him based on protected speech. The appellate court agreed with the defendant. Specifically, the court stated that the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws that inhibit a person’s right to free speech. Further, the court explained that while the protections provided by the First Amendment were broad, they did not extend to unprotected speech, such as speech deemed a true threat.

The court went on to explain that a true threat is a statement that a reasonable person would interpret as a serious expression of the intent to cause bodily harm to someone else or to end another person’s life, based on the context or circumstances in which the statement was made. In determining whether a statement is a true threat, the focus is on the speaker and the circumstances surrounding the statement. Here, the court found that by failing to provide such an instruction, the court potentially allowed the jury to convict the defendant based on protected speech. As such, the court reversed his convictions.

Confer with an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are accused of committing a crime of domestic violence, it is wise to consult an experienced Washington domestic violence defense attorney to discuss your charges and potential defenses. The trusted criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Smith & White are proficient at helping people accused of crimes seek to protect their rights and will tirelessly advocate on your behalf. We can be contacted through the form online or at  253-203-1645 to set up a consultation.

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