An accusation that a student threatened violence against a student or a school employee is serious and can impact a young person’s life in a tragic way. A defense attorney’s job when representing a young person charged with a crime is to find a way to preserve the client’s future and, when appropriate, help the client get needed help and support.
Threats to be taken seriously…by authorities as well as criminal defense attorneys
We are all aware of the history of tragic attacks upon students and teachers on school property. In the wake of such attacks, numerous laws have been enacted across the country to attempt to prevent or dissuade such events and threats of such events. Unfortunately, some individuals, not realizing the subject is not one to take lightly, become the targets of criminal prosecutions when they stupidly make a threat either as a bad joke or in the heated aftermath of a problem with a school. Rest assured, the authorities will not find any threat of violence the least bit amusing, and they will not care if a person had a “bad day” and lost their temper online or on the phone.
What exactly is prohibited, and what are the penalties?
Michigan law states a person may not verbally, electronically, or in any other way intentionally threaten to use a firearm, explosive, or other dangerous weapon to commit an act of violence against students or school employees on school grounds or property. For a defendant to be guilty of a crime, the threat must be reasonably interpreted to be harmful or dangerous to human life. “Dangerous to human life” means the substantial likelihood of death or serious injury.
Unfortunately, students and other young people get accused of this crime even when there has been no legitimate threat and a statement, text message, social media post or other communication is taken out of context or dramatized. This is serious because an allegation, even a false allegation, can have a devastating impact on a person’s future and his or her reputation.
There are also situations where a person may call in or email a threat to a school, and have no intention of actually following through with the threat. Even if this is true, and a person has no true harmful intentions, the threat may still a crime, punishable by a possible 1 year in jail and/or a $1,000.00 fine.
However, if evidence subsequently discovered by the authorities shows the person threatening did have the specific intent to carry out the threat, or had taken an overt act toward carrying it out, the penalty is a possible 10 years in jail and/or a fine of $20,000.00. In these cases, the defense lawyer may be the only person in the way of the client being sent to prison instead of getting much needed help and psychological support.
Intent and Overt Acts – What the Government Needs to Convict
For these crimes, the defendant or respondent must have a specific intent to make a threat or interfere with school activities. Evidence of specific intent could be a written note or diary detailing the plan of attack, making a list of targeted people, or noting the day and time of a planned attack. The government must also be able to show that the suspect actually did something in furtherance of the crime. This is called an “overt act.” An overt act toward carrying out a threat could be buying weapons or ammunition, or being found on or approaching school property in the possession of a dangerous weapon. Finally, the government in some cases may seek to prove that the accused possessed a dangerous weapon. A dangerous weapon is any item designed or customarily carried for use as a weapon, such as a knife, sword, brass knuckles, or blackjack. Air guns (BB and pellet guns) are considered dangerous weapons.
How is “school property” defined?
School property is a public or private school for grades 1-12, and includes buildings, playing fields, and other property used for any school purposes and events. In other words, one does not have to threaten violence “in the school.” It would be a violation of this law to threaten to attack an audience at a high school football game, for instance. In other words, these crimes may be investigated when an alleged threat impacted activities or people on any property associated with a school.
How can an attorney help a person charged with this crime?
An astute, experienced, and savvy criminal defense attorney will know the available arguments to defend these cases and perhaps get the charges dismissed. An attorney can develop arguments to refute an allegation that the client intended to threaten a school, and that anything that was said was misinterpreted. In any event, a person should never speak to the police and try to explain anything. Things that you think may help you may in fact land you in jail. Secondly, these cases normally involve very heavy media attention, and can be a complete nightmare for a suspect or defendant. A seasoned attorney will know how to deal with the media and be a shield between a defendant and the client.
In cases where the client does have mental health issues, a defense lawyer with decades of experience is likely to be aware of the best resources available to help his or her client.
LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C., School Threat Defense Firm
The dedicated, experienced, and zealous defense attorneys at LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. have successfully represented thousands of clients on felony and misdemeanor charges in Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, Washtenaw, and Livingston Counties and throughout Michigan. We have a well-earned reputation for providing the highest quality defense and aggressive representation, while showing empathy and care for each client. Call us today at (248) 263-6800 or complete a Request for Assistance Form and we will contact you promptly.