Criminal Threat: Definition, Levels & Charges

Instructor: Jessica Mercado

I completed my BA in Criminal Justice in 2015. Currently working on my MS in Homeland Security Management.

This lesson will provide the definition for criminal threat. The different levels of criminal threat and the charges associated with them will also be covered. In addition, examples will be provided to promote understanding.


What if someone came up to you and threatened to kill you and your family and said they know where you live? Were you fearful for your life or did you think it was a joke?

If you decided to press charges, your level of fear would be analyzed to determine if a legitimate threat was made.


So what is criminal threat? A criminal threat is words spoken by an individual or group, to terrorize or threaten another person or group of people.

So how does that play a role in the example in the introduction? Well, someone went up to another person and threatened the safety of another individual and their family.

Now, if it is constituted as an actual threat, will be left up to the court and jury to decide? Levels of fear will be put into play to determine if the victim actually felt enough fear to warrant a legitimate threat.

Levels of Fear

  • Actual fear- This occurs when a person or group, takes the threat very serious to where they actually fear the person or group who made the threat. An example of this would be, someone buying a security system or going into hiding to stay safe.
  • Reasonable fear-This occurs when a threat is made and it appears it can be easily carried out according to the victim. It does not have to be carried out right away to be considered reasonable. An example of this would be, someone threatens to burn down your house and you see them at the store buying materials that could be used to burn down a house.
  • Sustained fear- This occurs when a person or group feels fear for more than a fleeting moment. An example would be, bumping into someone on accident on the way to the restroom, they show you a pocket knife and say they are going to cut you up. They proceed to follow you into the bathroom and stand outside your stall. Once you are done, you run out of the bathroom, but they no longer proceed to follow you. The victim felt fear during the whole ordeal, that resided once they realized they weren't being followed.

In order for a criminal threat charge to hold, it must be determined that the victim had sustainable fear. The fear had to last longer than a fleeting moment. For a criminal threat conviction to hold, it must be determined that the victim felt actual fear.

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