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Name: People v. Peterson (2023) 95 Cal.App.5th 1061
Case #: A163458
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 3
Opinion Date: 09/26/2023

There was insufficient evidence to support defendant’s stalking conviction (Pen. Code, § 646.9(a)), which was based on his speech, because his conduct was not a “true threat” under the First Amendment. Defendant was convicted of stalking a politician and his family based on (1) the defendant’s odd comments to the politician’s wife at an open house event in support of a school bond measure, (2) reposting on Facebook a publicly available photo of the politician’s family with comments about the open house event and the politician’s children, and (3) a rambling letter against local politics addressed to the politician’s wife and children. Defendant appealed. Held: Reversed. Here, the speech unquestionably occurred in a First Amendment context. The First Amendment protects speech, but permits a State to ban a “true threat.” True threats include statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. When a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence implicates the First Amendment, the reviewing court must conduct an independent review of the record as an added safeguard. In this case, as a matter of law, a reasonable person would not understand defendant’s speech, separately or cumulatively, to be a true threat. While defendant’s personal comments about the politician’s family were no doubt upsetting, they were made in the context of the school bond measure the politician and his wife supported as parents of “school-aged children.” A reasonable person would not think that the statements reflected efforts to learn about, locate, or contact the politician’s daughters. Direct threats of violence are not necessary, but something more than the mere mention of the children was required to be a true threat.