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Can Verbally Threatening Someone Land You in Jail?

Toronto is famous for many things: clean streets, friendly people, cultural diversity, and thriving commerce. Unfortunately, it is also now infamous for its charismatic mayor, Rob Ford. The politician’s antics have landed him in some pretty hot water. Among his several missteps in recent months is a viral video that shows Ford threatening to kill an unidentified person who wasn’t present when Ford made his threats. The video, which was obtained by The Toronto Star and made available to the public by CTV News, raised questions about whether Ford’s statements rose to the level of a crime. Does threatening to hurt or kill someone constitute an assault? Or is there some other crime involved?

Assault Defined

A threat to harm someone at some point in the future is not assault. Verbal threats can be scary and disturbing, but they are not always criminal. In Canada, assault is defined as a direct or indirect intentional application of force to another person without his or her consent.

“Uttering Threats” Is a Serious Crime

There is, however, a second type of criminal charge for this kind of behaviour. Under Canadian law, “uttering threats” is a crime that encompasses two separate charges: “uttering death” and “uttering bodily harm.” In today’s mobile, connected society, these types of threats occur with increasing frequency through text, via email, and on Facebook.

To prove that an individual uttered threats of death or bodily harm, the Crown must show that the accused made the threat knowingly, which means he or she was fully aware of the meaning behind the words and understood the gravity of the threat. Unlike assault, the Crown does not have to prove that the individual was capable of carrying out the threat. There is also nothing in the law that requires the intended victim to believe the threat of harm is imminent.

As with any crime, there are several defences to uttering threats. When an individual is accused of uttering bodily harm or death, the court considers the total context of the threat and the overall seriousness of the words involved.

Threatening to kill someone is no joking matter. A conviction carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. As Internet and digital communication has become a part of everyday life, the things people write and say are easily preserved and disseminated to the public. As in the case of Mayor Rob Ford, even a rant brought about by so-called extreme intoxication can come back to haunt you. Before you speak or text or send off an angry email, consider the consequences and choose your words carefully.