Q: I got into a heated argument with one of my neighbours last week. I was pretty angry, and at one point I told him I was going to shoot his dog and burn down his barn. One of the people who overheard that conversation told me she thought I was breaking the law. Is that true?
A: Yes. Uttering threats is a criminal offence. The threats that are usually the basis of criminal proceedings are threats to cause death or serious bodily harm to another person, but threats to burn, destroy or damage someone else’s property or to kill, poison or injure an animal or bird that is the property of another person can also be found to be criminal offences.
The threat does not have to be made directly to the person being threatened. It can be a criminal offence even if it is conveyed through a third party.
There is case law that says the intended victim of the threat need not even be aware of the threat having been made. A “conditional” threat, such as saying that if a police officer did not leave a location he would be shot, has been found to constitute an offence.
However, the accused may have a defence if it is determined that the words in question were said in a manner that could not seriously cause a reasonable person to conclude they conveyed a threat.
In most situations, the criminal code is concerned with actions, but this is one example where the words that you say can constitute an offence.
From a policy perspective, uttering threats is often a precursor to a more serious event, particularly in domestic relationships or between neighbours, coworkers or other acquaintances.
The fact that a spoken threat can be the subject of a criminal charge sometimes allows the altercation to be dealt with before anyone is physically harmed.
Often, if the person who made the threat pleads guilty and does not have a long and violent criminal record, they may be put on probation with terms that require them to keep away from the person they have threatened, as well as keeping the peace and being of good behaviour.
Frequently in cases such as this, particularly if the person who has been threatened agrees to it, the crown prosecutor may ask the accused person to voluntarily enter into a surety to keep the peace, which is often called a peace bond.
In that circumstance, the person undertakes to leave the one they threatened alone and may have to post a bond as security for that promise.
So, do not resort to threatening when arguing with others. Do not say these kinds of things even as a joke. The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” does not hold true for Section 264.1 of the Criminal Code.