What Happens if You Threaten a Public Official or Their Family?

February 21, 2022 Criminal Defense, Violent Crimes

The state of Florida has several laws against threatening others, either through verbal threat or through written form. If a threat is made towards a public official or another person in the legal world, the penalties may be even harsher. Federal law also proscribes its own laws and related penalties for threatening a public official.

If you have been charged with a crime, the legal process that follows can be taxing and leave you feeling frustrated or angry. However, those feelings culminating in a threat against a public servant, including a judge, can result in serious legal consequences. This page highlights the various state and federal consequences for threatening another person, along with the case details for the Lawrence Curtin case. Although his case is federal, it gives insight on how making a threat to a judge—even if you claim it is not a valid threat—can result in fines and prison sentences.

Florida Charges for Threats

A threat is defined as a communication, by word or act, that conveys a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual.

Chapter 836 of the Florida Statutes identifies the penalties for threatening letters and similar offenses in Florida. It is important to note that Florida has separate laws and resulting penalties depending on whether the defendant was accused of threatening a public official or sending a written or electronic threat to kill or cause bodily harm.

Florida Statute Section 836.12 explains that any person who knowingly and willfully threatens a law enforcement officer, state attorney, assistant state attorney, firefighter, judge, justice, judicial assistant, clerk of court, clerk personnel, or an elected official, or a family member of any such person, with death or serious bodily harm can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor. A conviction for a first-degree misdemeanor carries up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. If a defendant is charged with a second or subsequent offense, they can be charged with a third-degree felony. A conviction for a third-degree felony carries up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

To convict a person for threatening a public official or their family, the State must prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. The Defendant threatened to kill or commit an act resulting in serious bodily harm to the person receiving the threat;
  2. At the time, the person receiving the threat was a law enforcement officer, state attorney, assistant state attorney, firefighter, judge, elected official, or a family member of the previously listed categories;
  3. The Defendant knew the victim was a member of the previously listed categories or one of their family members.

Florida Statute Section 836.10 explains that it is unlawful for any person to send, post, transmit, or procure the sending, posting, or transmission of a writing or other record, including an electronic record, in any way it may be viewed by another person, which such writing or record makes a threat to either:

  • Kill or do bodily harm to another person; or
  • Conduct a mass shooting or act of terrorism.

The term “electronic record” refers to any record that is created, modified, archived, received, or distributed electronically which contains any combination of text, graphics, video, audio, or pictorial represented in digital form, except for a telephone call.

A defendant in Florida charged with creating a written or electronic threat faces a second-degree felony. A conviction for a second-degree felony carries up to a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison.

Federal Charges for Written Threats

In addition to state charges, threatening public officials could result in facing federal charges as well.

Mailing threatening communications is codified under U.S.C. § 876(c), which explains it is a federal crime for any person to knowingly deposit or cause to be delivered any communication addressed to another person that contains any threat of kidnapping or threat to cause harm or injury the person of the addressee or another. A person prosecuted under this law faces up to five years in federal prison, plus fines. However, if the written communication of the alleged threat is addressed to a United States judge, federal law enforcement officer, or an official covered under Section 1114, then the defendant faces up to ten years in federal prison.

To obtain a federal conviction under 18 U.S.C § 876(c), the federal prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:

  1. Knowingly sent a message via mail;
  2. Had the knowledge that the mailed message included a “true threat”; and
  3. Intended for (or had knowledge that) the mailed message would be viewed as a threat.

Federal Case Example

An interesting federal case regarding written threats to public officials surrounds a man in Florida whose threat to a judge has now earned him 5 years in prison. Lawrence F. Curtin, 73, went to trial back in November 2021 for an alleged threat he made to a United States Magistrate Judge.

A federal magistrate judge is a judicial officer of the district court who exercises jurisdiction over matters assigned by statute and those delegated by district judges. In a criminal case, magistrate judges handle pre-trial matters, such as the first appearance of a defendant, the arraignment pleas, and pre-trial release. They typically handle federal petty offense cases and federal misdemeanor cases.

Curtin was injured in a car accident in 2012. The car wreck spawned four different lawsuits. First, there was a person-injury action filed by Curtin which he subsequently lost in Florida State court. Curtin then proceeded to follow up with two more civil lawsuits in federal court. Magistrate Judge Shaniek Maynard, the judge assigned to the federal lawsuits, recommended the dismissal of both cases. Curtain filed separate complaints with the Florida Judicial Qualification Commission regarding state-court Judge Janet Croom’s handling of his initial civil case.

However, criminal liability arose with the commission’s analysis of the complaint, which they claimed contained a threat to the judge. The Commission referred Curtin for criminal prosecution on the ground that his complaint invoked the “Biblical law which states an ‘eye for an eye’” which addressed further concerns with Curtin’s expressed view on having an “obligation … to stop Croom.”

The charges were later dropped in a Florida court, due to the judge finding Curtin as incompetent to stand trial. This caused Curtin to file another federal suit to challenge the decisions made by the state court. This suit addressed the “Florida State Court System” as the defendant in the case, alleging that the system and its members were part of an organized conspiracy. Again, Judge Maynard recommended the case’s dismissal due to incompetency.

Curtin was angry with the dismissal and wrote an objection, ultimately resulting in him being charged with threatening a public figure. The following provides the key passage from Curtis’ response to Judge Maynard:

“WHERE IN MY JUNE 23, 2018 LETTER DO I THREATEN DEATH OR BODILY HARM TO [JUDGE] CROOM? NO WHERE! My June 23, 2018 letter as you will note is addressed to the judicial qualification commission (JQC). YOU DO NOT ADDRESS A LETTER TO THE JQC TO THREATEN A JUDGES [SIC] PERSON. YOU ADDRESS IT TO THE JQC TO THREATEN A JUDGES [SIC] POSITION. Maynard is unable to understand this. I also named Maynard as an addier [sic] and abetter. Maynard knew about the defendant refusing my heart medication in an effort to kill me yet SHE COVERED IT UP.

It is obvious from the totality of words in the song including its title that I am threatening Maynard with death and bodily harm. Also by holding onto the hand of the preacher of color that I am threatening Maynard who is a woman of color with death.”

Included in Curtis’ response was from a YouTube video showing Curtin listening to the gospel hymn “Road to Glory” inside a church. The video shows Curtin approaching the pulpit and taking a Black preacher’s hand. Judge Maynard is Black, and her father was a preacher for two decades.

The clip was found to be a threat to a U.S. magistrate judge. Although Curtin never met with the judge face to face, adding the clip from the scene implied he had done his research and was threatening bodily harm or death. Judge Maynard interpreted Curtin’s response as a threat to herself and her family, resulting in the defendant being charged with threatening a public official.

It’s been revealed that Curtin has had a pattern of threatening federal and state judges, dating all the way back to 2005.

Curtin was convicted of mailing a threatening communication in violation of 18. U.S.C. § 876(c) and threatening a federal official in violation of 18. U.S.C. §115(c).

The sentence for threatening the judge was imposed by United States District Court Judge William F. Jung. At the court date in Tampa, Florida, U.S. Attorney Juan Antonio Gonzalez of the Southern District of Florida announced the sentence for Curtin—five years in prison. The sentence also includes a supervised release term of three years following incarceration.

Sentence Upheld

Curtis’ conviction has recently been upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. On August 28, 2023, Judge Kevin C. Newsome issued the opinion on behalf of the three-judge panel.

Curtin’s appeal was based on the claim that the court had insufficient evidence to support the allegations of threatening a public official. The defendant implied that his message was sarcastic, and that he didn’t intend to use the statement as a threat. However, the Court’s Opinion addressed how for present purposes, all that mattered was that the jury found that “Curtin meant what he said and that he meant to threaten Judge Maynard.”

He also cited the previous concerns over his mental competency to stand trial. However, the 11th Circuit Court explained that the strongest evidence to illustrate Curtin’s mental state is in his own words. In his objection, Curtin stated he thought “[i]t [was] obvious from the totality of words in the song including its title that [he was] threatening Maynard with death and bodily harm.”

The Opinion of the Court addressed Curtin’s sentence of 60 months in federal prison, which was challenged through appeal: “For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM Curtin’s convictions and sentence.”

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Navigating the complex legal processes that accompany a criminal charge is an extremely stressful situation. If you or a loved one have been accused of threatening a public servant, or any crime, your first step should be contacting a skilled criminal defense attorney in your area. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have represented clients all across the state of Florida and have experience defending individuals against a wide range of charges. They will explore all applicable defenses to your case and fight zealously for your freedom. Call (850) 681-7777 and receive a free consultation regarding your case today.

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