The California Supreme Court ruled in San Francisco Thursday that a menacing nonverbal gesture doesn’t qualify as a criminal threat under state law.
The court issued its ruling in the case of a Riverside County man, Mario Gonzalez, who was accused of making threats with hand gestures toward an off-duty police officer and four friends who were sitting in a restaurant in Indio in 2013.
Gonzalez made a “JT” hand sign, which was a symbol of a gang known as Jackson Terrace, and then used his hands to simulate a gun, which he pointed at the group. The off-duty officer and his four co-workers and friends said the gestures frightened them.
Gonzalez was charged by the district attorney with five counts of making a criminal threat.
But the high court said unanimously that the state law defining criminal threats does not encompass nonverbal hand gestures.
The law, last amended by the Legislature in 1998 to include electronic threats, makes it a crime to threaten death or serious bodily injury with a statement “made verbally, in writing or by means of an electronic communication device.”
Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the court’s ruling that the phrase “made verbally” refers to the use of words and not to gestures:
“Nothing in logic or reason allows us to interpret “made verbally” to include nonverbal conduct.”
The court said it would be up to the Legislature to amend the law to include symbolic nonverbal gestures if it wished to do so.
The threat charges against Gonzalez were dismissed by a Superior Court judge, but reinstated by a state appeals court after the California attorney general’s office appealed.
Gonzalez then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which reversed the appeals court and said the Superior Court judge’s interpretation of the law was correct.