Unfortunately, time and time again, I am contacted by victims of stalking complaining about law enforcement either not understanding or not caring about the difference between a credible and a direct threat when it comes to stalking. That is one of the reasons we spend some time in our book discussing the difference and giving so many different examples. So let us take some time on this post to differentiate between the two. We also spend some time when we train law enforcement and victim advocates concerning this issue.
Direct Threat: A direct threat is pretty simile in definition. It is a threat to clearly (at least on the face of it) do harm or damage to the victim or those they are in an intimate relationship with. This could also mean a threat directed specifically at family members. An example of a direct threat would be, ” I am going to kill you.” ” I am going to break your arm.” ” I am going to go get a gun and shoot a member of your family.” We think everyone can figure that is a specific threat generated by a stalker towards their target. Generally most penal code sections incorporate the transmission of this threat can be done verbally, or by electronic device, and/or by a third party. In other words, Tom tells Mary, he is going to cut Jerry up into little pieces. Mary, then communicates this information to Jerry causing him to fear Tom. Depending on jurisdiction, there may be no requirement that the individual making these threats actually intend on carrying them out. (Another thing to that may be taken into consideration concerning the transmission of third party threats is does the person making the threats have a reasonable expectation that the person he is uttering the threat to will actually convey that threat to the person it is intended for.)Of course, there would have to be enough evidence presented to a prosecutor to charge the individual with something like criminal or terrorist threats. (We don’t want to get into all the variables. We are also not law professors or attorney’s so we are not going to try and teach a class on criminal law. Our purpose is to just give you some idea on the basic differences between the two types of threats.)
Credible Threat:Under the California Penal code section for stalking, 646.9, a credible threat is defined as: ” means a verbal or written threat, including that performed through use of an electronic communication device, or a threat implied by a pattern of conduct or a combination of verbal, written, or electronically communicated statements and conduct, made with the intent to place the person that is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family, and made with the present ability to carry out the threat so as to cause the person who is the target of the threat to reasonably fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family.” Now while trying to define credible threat we get back into another term that is included in most if not all stalking sections at least in some form or another; that being course of conduct.
In California Course of Conduct is defined as “two or more acts occurring over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose.” “Constitutionally protected activity is not included within the meaning of ‘course of conduct.”
In the book we give examples of several other states and some other countries definitions. However, to clarify, let us give you an example of how a credible threat might take place evidencing a strange course of conduct. A woman starts to be followed by a stalker. That stalker shows up at various locations and events she attends. One day she awakens, comes out her front door and finds that “someone” (later found to be her stalker) had turned over all of her front yard flower pots and made little graves on her front porch. Other victims have continually gotten a series of unwanted, notes, cards, letters, and then phone calls from an individual that the victim does not want to have anything to do with. That individual then starts to show up at her place of business to profess his love. He then follows her to the movies, restaurants and other venues. At no time does the stalker ever state that he wants to harm or do damage to her; however this type of behavior causes the victim to become fearful and experience emotional trauma. Especially when he is advised on more than one occasion to stop bothering/harassing her. Many times the gifts and letters may become darker; especially when the stalker is continually rebuked. An example would be instead of leaving fresh flowers on the victim’s doorsteps, the flowers that are left are dead. The stalker leaves a stuffed animal that his hung with a noose around its neck on the door knob. These acts all go towards formulating a case for stalking. We must point out that not all stalkers make direct threats towards their targets, but their behavior can be so bizarre as to cause the victim to fear and have emotional distress.
The issue a stalking victim oftentimes encounters is that the law enforcement personnel he or she encounters, say the first responder such as a uniformed patrol officer may not be trained in all or even most of the elements of stalking. Therefore, it is incumbent on the victim to then try and contact an investigator who is reportedly versed in how to handle a stalker. Hopefully going that extra mile will get the victim the assistance they require.