Are there things you just can’t say without risking being charged with a crime? Do the manner and amount of the verbal attacks matter in determining if a crime has been committed? Do verbal threats ever cross the legal line?

As with most issues, the answer is – probably not, but it depends. As with every criminal charge, the starting point is to examine the state statutes.

Tennessee’s assault law

In Tennessee, T.C.A. 39-13-101(a)(2) provides:

“(a) A person commits assault who:

(1) Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another;

(2) Intentionally or knowingly causes another to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury; or

(3) Intentionally or knowingly causes physical contact with another and a reasonable person would regard the contact as extremely offensive or provocative.”

It is part 2 of this law that police can use to file a criminal complaint against someone who makes verbal threats without physical threats. Just saying mean things doesn’t qualify. The fundamental requirements to be charged with a verbal assault are that the words must cause the target of the verbal attack to:

  • Have a reasonable fear. If the target clearly understands that the accused doesn’t really mean what he/she is saying, then the statute doesn’t apply. As a general rule, the test is whether the person who yelled intended to create fear in the victim (as opposed to just being loud or obnoxious) rather than whether the victim actually experienced the fear.
  • Be imminent. If the accused says, “’I’m going to punch you the next time you say that,” the statute shouldn’t apply because it’s not imminent. In this technology age, it is very debatable than a threat made over the made or by text is imminent.
  • Include bodily injury. If the accused says, “I’m going to flatten your car’s tires,” that doesn’t involve bodily injury – so the statute shouldn’t apply.

(For the record, if someone threatens to flatten your tires and then does so, that person may still be in hot water. He or she just cannot be charged with assault.)

In addition, the comments must be intentional, knowing, or reckless. If the person yelling has mental health difficulties, for example, that may also be a defense to this element of the criminal statute.

If the person yelling at you does anything to indicate they will carry out their threat – such as clenching their fists or pulling out a knife – then part 2 of the statute is more likely to apply.

In short, simply yelling at someone may not be enough to lead to criminal charges. It depends on the circumstances and actions of the person who is yelling. Assault in Tennessee is generally a class A misdemeanor. If the threat as part of a domestic abuse situation, the penalties could increase.

Other possible crimes or legal issues

Many different verbal statements can be crimes:

  • Repeated verbal abuse may constitute harassment, which can lead to civil penalties.
  • Lies and misrepresentations may lead to fraud charges or even perjury charges.
  • In a classic Supreme Court case, the court held that “Yelling fire falsely in a theater” creating an unnecessary panic could be criminal.

Furthermore, these threats can speak to intent in cases where a person does commit a crime. While yelling “I’m going to kill you!” may not always lead to charges, it could increase the penalties someone faces if he or she does kill the victim. In Tennessee, premeditated murder – murder in the first degree – can lead to the death penalty. If a jury believes that the verbal threats proved intent, then the perpetrator could find him or herself on death row.

At the Law Offices of Adrian H. Altshuler & Associates, our criminal defense lawyers in Franklin, Columbia, and Brentwood assert every possible legal and factual argument in your favor. We hold the prosecution to its duty to prove each element of a criminal charge. When the government can’t prove those elements, we seek a dismissal of the charges. When the elements of the charge are in dispute, we work to negotiate a fair plea bargain. For help with threats, assault or any type of criminal charge, call us at 615-412-1121 or complete our contact form to schedule an appointment.