In true-threat cases, context matters

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A California public school student had no First Amendment defense to making threats to a teacher and principal, a state appeals court has ruled.

In May 2011 a juvenile student known in court papers as Francisco T. confronted his teacher Terri A. after she sent him to the principal’s office. After leaving the office, he pounded on the teacher’s door, yelling: “Let me in you mother f—— bitch.  How could you do this to me?”

Francisco allegedly threatened the school principal, Roxanne R., who had spoken to him about his behavior in class. He allegedly left the official’s office and said, “I’m going to f— them up.” School officials called Francisco’s father and he left school that day.

For his unruly conduct, Francisco T. was charged with violating California Penal Code 71:

“Every person who, with intent to cause, attempts to cause, or causes, any officer or employee of any public or private educational institution or any public officer or employee to do, or refrain from doing, any act in the performance of his duties, by means of a threat … is guilty of a public offense.”

A juvenile judge determined that Francisco T. had threatened both Terri A. and Roxanne R. and placed him on probation in his home.

On appeal, Francisco T. contended he did not utter any true threats because he did not communicate a threat directly to the school officials in question. The Court of Appeal of California, 1st Appellate District, affirmed the juvenile court in its Nov. 28 opinion in In Re Francisco T.

The appeals court focused on the context of the incident. It noted that Francisco had pounded on the teacher’s door for two minutes, yelled at the teacher, “and displayed balled up fists, an angry facial expression and intimidating body language.” The court concluded his “physically aggressive behavior and belligerent statements in combination more than sufficiently established” that he uttered a true threat.

The appeals court also said Francisco T. uttered a true threat to the principal when he “ignored her efforts to block his progress toward the classrooms, and his aggressive conduct – in the classrooms themselves – directly interfered with Roxanne R.’s performance of her duties and implicitly threatened continued interference if she persisted in the performance of her disciplinary duties.”

The decision shows that a true-threat analysis consists of more than just the actual language spoken. A threat analysis focuses heavily on context; any threatening gestures, physical behavior and other aggressive action will be factored into the equation in court.

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