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Uttering Threats

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Threaten death or bodily harm

Under the Criminal Code, it is an offence to knowingly utter or convey a threat to cause death or bodily harm to any person. It is also an offence to threaten to burn, destroy or damage property or threaten to kill, poison or injure an animal or bird that belongs to a person.

Penalties

The offence of utter death threat may be prosecuted by summary conviction or by indictment. If prosecuted by indictment, the accused person is entitled to elect trial by jury and upon conviction is liable to up to five years jail. In most cases, however, the offence is prosecuted by summary conviction, requiring a trial in the provincial court. In this case, the maximum jail penalty is six months.

What the Crown must prove

To secure a conviction at trial, the Crown must prove that the person making the threat did so knowingly. That is, the prosecution must show that he was aware of the words used and the meaning they would convey. It must show that he intended the threat to be taken seriously or to intimidate.

It is not necessary for the Crown to prove that the person uttering the threat did so with the intent that it be conveyed to its intended recipient. Nor is it necessary to prove that the person making the threat intended to carry it out or was capable of doing so. The motive for making the threat is equally irrelevant.

In assessing whether the words constitute a threat, they must be considered objectively. The court must ask: In the context and circumstances in which the words were spoken or written, the manner in which they were used, and the person to whom they were directed would they convey a threat to a reasonable person? How the words were perceived by those hearing them can factor into this assessment.

Threat can be against group

A history of violence between the parties may support a finding that the words were intended as a threat. Whether or not the person making the threat has an apparent ability to carry it out when the words are spoken, his use of gestures or acts, whether the recipient of the words takes them seriously, and disparity in size between the speaker and the recipient of the threat may all be relevant to an assessment of the speaker's intent.

The Crown need not prove that the intended recipient of the threat was made aware of it, or if aware of it, that he or she was intimidated by it or took it seriously. Further, the words do not have to be directed towards a specific person; a threat against an ascertained group of people is sufficient.

Threat to “rearrange prosecutor’s face”

Stéphane McRae, in a Quebec jail awaiting trial for drug trafficking, was charged in 2009 with uttering threats after telling fellow inmates, among other things, that he would “rearrange the face of the Crown prosecutor” and that once his trial was over “he would kill the witnesses who had informed against him.” His acquittal at trial was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal which reasoned that making the threats to fellow inmates was “on par with a threatening letter that is never sent in the mail.”

The Court of Appeal concluded that the words “did not amount to threats because they were not conveyed to their intended recipients” or “cause anyone to be fearful or intimidated.”

The Supreme Court in 2013 reversed the acquittal stating that it was sufficient that Mr. McRae intended the threats to be taken seriously. It was not necessary to prove that he intended the words to be transmitted to the Crown prosecutor or witnesses or that he specifically intended to intimidate them.

Conditional threat

A threat may be conditional. In 1986, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that it was a threat when a man phoned police and said he would shoot an officer who wanted to question him if the officer did not leave his property.

Idle threats

No offence is committed, however, if a threat is innocently made. The offence is not meant to criminalize idle threats or words blurted out only in anger, desperation, bitterness or frustration. Words said in jest or in a manner that they could not be taken seriously do not constitute a threat.

Intended victim need not know of threat

To be an offence, the threat need not be made directly to the intended victim. The intended victim need not even be aware of the threat. Nor is it necessary that the person making the threat intend that it be communicated to the target of the threat. The purpose of the offence is to protect the exercise of freedom of choice by preventing intimidation.

Lawful excuse

A threat made against a trespasser may be justified. However, the property owner must first ask the trespasser to leave and give him a reasonable opportunity to do so. A person in imminent danger or distress in the face of an aggressor may be justified in making threats as an act of self-defence.

Toronto Ex-Mayor Mel Lastman

"Leave my family alone. If you don't leave them alone, I'll kill you." Former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman reportedly uttered these words to a television reporter during a city council meeting in May 1999. It was said Lastman was angry with the reporter over a story published in a satirical magazine that alluded to the mayor's wife. Did the ex-mayor commit a crime? The answer depends primarily on whether his words were no more than an angry outburst or whether he meant them to be taken seriously. Lastman was never charged.



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Disclaimer: The material on this site is not intended as legal advice. It merely conveys general information on legal issues commonly encountered by persons facing criminal charges in Canada. If you are charged with an offence, you should contact a criminal lawyer.


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