When Threatening Body Language Becomes an Issue for the Law

Posted by Wayne Housley | Apr 21, 2017 | 0 Comments

While rarely applied by police and prosecutors, Mississippi criminal code allows for non-verbal threats to be considered as forms of simple assault and domestic violence under the aggravated assault statute. In other words, the crime of assault does not always have to include actual physical contact. Charges can be laid merely by the non-verbal threat of assault combined with the alleged victim's fear of being assaulted. Such non-verbal threats could also potentially be considered criminal under the state's laws against stalking.

Mississippi Law and Non-Verbal Threats

Under the statute, “attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily harm” are grounds for finding a defendant guilty of simple assault or of simple domestic violence. Thus, one's threatening body language—whether shaking a fist in anger, drawing a line across one's throat to suggest the slitting of another's, or aggressively posturing—can be construed by law enforcement and the courts as a form of assault.

And, because that latter charge can be upped to felony status if the defendant has two prior convictions within seven years, some folks probably need to be careful with their body language when around others. Additionally, the penalties for simple assault are substantially raised should the assault target anyone listed in the “aggravating circumstance” section of the statute. Which means that one needs to be careful not to shake one's fist in anger at law enforcement personnel, court officials, teachers, and the elderly, among others.

These and other vagaries within Mississippi's laws regarding aggravated assault and stalking, make it especially important for those charged with the crime to secure the services of a knowledgeable attorney—such as William Wayne Housley, Attorney at Law—who can mount an aggressive defense.

Now that you know that “looks”—that is, threatening body language—can be cause for arrest, what, exactly, might constitute such?

What Non-Verbal Actions are Constituted as Threats?

We have already suggested that fist shaking in anger and the classic throat-slitting motion are likely candidates that could be defined as threatening body language, but what of “aggressive posturing” and other non-verbal threats? There are dozens of them according to the Body Language Project, but unfortunately, it's empirically difficult to determine which non-verbal threats will actually lead to physical violence and which represent “bluff displays.”

Likewise, other than obvious motions such as fist shaking, throat slashing, and strangling, it would be difficult to know which potential body language threats could lead to an arrest. That said, the following have been identified as forms of threatening body language:

  • Finger pointing and jabbing toward
  • Raising hands above mid-section
  • Chopping hand motion
  • Making a false charge
  • Throwing a false punch
  • Throwing hands in unison as if throwing a large object
  • Repositioning (walking around to confront from different angles)
  • Barring the chest
  • Encroachment of personal space
  • Erratic gesticulation with palms and hands
  • Making rude gestures
  • Going to-to-toe
  • Assuming the “quarter” or boxer's stance
  • Snarling, hissing and sneering
  • Bared teeth
  • Clenching of fists
  • Staring aggressively

While none of these body language cues conclusively indicate that an assault is imminent, if a person is in fear of such assault while any of these actions are being performed, the alleged potential assailant could theoretically be charged with actual assault under the statute. In particular, a law enforcement officer might make a proactive arrest based on witnessing such threatening body language in order to prevent an actual physical assault from occurring.

It might seem that defending such charges would be easy, given that no physical assault actually occurred. But while a defendant could argue that his actions were harmless and misinterpreted as “threatening” by witnesses, juries and judges can be easily swayed by the prosecution. Thus, if facing such charges it is imperative to secure an attorney who can determine the best strategy for convincing the prosecution to drop the charges, or, barring that, convincing a judge or jury that the body language and/or nonverbal gestures were not meant as a threat.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

With more than 20 years of experience, Mr. Housley is well versed in providing aggressive criminal defense services, and includes aggravated assault and domestic violence among his key practice areas. As no two cases are the same, Mr. Housley gives all of his clients personalized attention designed to secure the best possible outcome, and works tirelessly to protect his client's rights and help them retain their freedom.

To schedule a free consultation on your criminal case, call 662-346-2069, or fill out our online consultation form.

About the Author

Wayne Housley

Commitment to your cause is my primary concern as an attorney. I have been litigating cases for almost twenty-five years and have tried criminal cases that range from speeding tickets to capital murder and family law cases ranging from temporary custody to divorce cases. Allow my experience to work for you.


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