Verbal Threats of Harm to a Public Official can Constitute the Crime of Improper Influence

State of New Hampshire v. Michael Hanes
New Hampshire Supreme Court No. 2017-0170
Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Making a verbal threat of harm to a public official can be of such severity that the language used will constitute the crime of improper influence under RSA 640:3, a class B felony. On February 16, 2016 Michael Hanes left a voice mail message for Town of Pembroke Town Administrator David Jodoin complaining about the snow plowing of his street.  Hanes stated that due to the proximity of his house to the street snow plowing had left two feet of snow in his front yard.  That message was preceded by prior complaints by Hanes about snow plowing operations on his street.  In the voicemail Hanes threatened to shoot a specific plow truck driver and to kill every other plow truck driver in Town.  Due to the fact the message made a threat against a specific town employee, Jodoin brought the message to the attention of the Pembroke Police Department.   Hanes was subsequently indicted on one class B felony count of improper influence under RSA 640:3, I(a).  After a one day jury trial in Merrimack County Superior Court Hanes was convicted and was sentenced to a term of 12 months in the House of Corrections with all but seven days suspended.

RSA 640:3 provides in part that a person is guilty of a class B felony if he threatens any harm to a public servant  with the purpose of influencing his action, decision, opinion, recommendation, . or other exercise of discretion.  At trial the jury was instructed that the crime of improper influence has three elements that the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) the defendant made a threat of harm to another; (2) the other person was a public servant; and (3) the threat of harm was intended to influence the recipient’s action, decision, opinion, recommendation, or other exercise of discretion.

On appeal to the NH Supreme Court Hanes argued that the crime of improper influence of a public official required that the offending message indicate that the threat of harm was impending or imminent.  Hanes maintained his voicemail message was only intended to convey his frustration and not to cause extreme fear on the part of a public official so as to cause an improper influence. The Court, however, interpreted the statute to prohibit statements to a public official that encompass threats of harm to the official if the public servant fails to modify official actions with which the speaker objects.  In other words a “threat” can be defined as a declaration of an intention or determination to inflict injury conditionally upon a public official due official actions. 

Hanes also argued his voicemail was protected speech under the First Amendment.  On that issue the Court concluded that because Hanes conveyed threats of violence with the intent of influencing the town administrator’s implementation of the town’s snow plowing procedures his speech constituted a true threat that was not protected speech under the First Amendment. Thus, the Court affirmed Hanes’ conviction of improper influence under RSA 640:3.

Learn More in Court Decision!