Article Israel: Supreme Court Holds Threat of Suicide Not a Criminal Offense

(Feb. 15, 2018) On January 17, 2018, Israel’s Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of an appellant who had threatened to take her own life and been charged with committing a criminal threat under § 192 of the Penal Law, 5737-1977. The Court opinion was issued by Justice Dafna Barak-Erez, with Justices Uzi Vogelman and Hanan Melcer concurring. (CrimA 8736/15 Tsobari Bar v. State of Israel (Jan. 17, 2018), State of Israel: The Judicial Authority website (in Hebrew); Penal Law, 5737-1977 § 192, SEFER HAHUKIM [BOOK OF LAWS, official gazette] 5737, No. 864 p. 226, as amended.)

Background

The appellant, a woman of limited means who lives on a disability pension, was sued by her neighbor for harming his property by leaving bags of clothing at the entrance to their apartment building. Missing the deadline for responding to the lawsuit, the small claims court judge ruled against the appellant and ordered her to pay the plaintiff 30,000 Israeli Shekels (IS) (about US$9,000) in compensation. Liens were consequently levied against the appellant’s property. (CrimA 8736/15 ¶ 4; Revital Hovel, Supreme Court: Threat of Suicide Is Not a Crime, Don’t Want to Deter from Expressing Feeling of Distress, HAARETZ (Jan. 18, 2018) (in Hebrew).)

The appellant then sent a letter to the judge who had convicted her, stating that as a last resort she chose to commit suicide and hoped that her suicide would haunt the judge for the rest of her life. The letter was intercepted by the court security system, and the appellant was charged and convicted of committing a threat. She was sentenced to one month probation and a fine in the amount of IS1,000 (about US$300) to be implemented if she committed a similar offense within the following twelve months. The appellant’s subsequent appeal before the district court was rejected. (CrimA 8736/15 ¶¶ 4–9.)

The Offense of Committing a Threat

The Penal Law provides that

[a] person who in any manner, with intent to intimidate or annoy another, threatens him with unlawful injury to his body, freedom, property, reputation or livelihood or that of a third person is liable to imprisonment for three years. (Penal Law, 5737-1977 § 192 (translation by author).)

Supreme Court Determinations

According to Justice Barak-Erez the element of unlawfulness that is required to establish the offense of threat under § 192 of the Penal Law, 5737-1977 relates to the infliction of an “injury” that will materialize if the person threatened does not comply with the threat. In this case the question that should be asked is whether a threat to commit suicide constitutes unlawful harm to the human body and is therefore prohibited. (Id. ¶¶ 27–28.)

Barak-Erez determined that because in 1966 the Israeli law criminalizing suicide had been repealed, threatening suicide cannot constitute a basis for conviction under § 192, which prohibits one from threatening “unlawful injury” to the body of “another person” who is being threatened. (Id. ¶ 44.)

Recognizing that a threat to commit suicide may serve as a means of emotional manipulation and vindictiveness, Barak-Erez stated that it may also reflect a situation of crisis and even a call for help. (Id. ¶ 53.) The expression of suicidal thoughts may lead to the provision of treatment to prevent the suicide threat from being carried out. (Id. ¶ 55.) In Barak-Erez’s opinion,

[r]estraining freedom of expression by criminal law in situations of distress where suicidal thoughts arise in a person may therefore lead to a chilling effect on expressing feelings of distress and despair—before family members and friends or before treating professionals and welfare authorities. (Id. ¶ 57.)

The Court’s determination that the offense of threat in its current form was not intended to apply to threats of suicide, Barak-Erez held, does not affect the possibility of enacting a specific offense that would apply to such threats. Such legislation may in her view adopt different approaches to different situations, such as those involving suicide threats in spousal relationships as a means of harassment or exerting pressure, repetitive threats, or threats directed at a person who knows the threatening person and is therefore emotionally affected by that person. (Id. ¶ 59.)

Conclusions

Justice Barak-Erez decided that there was no reason to convict the appellant of attempting to threaten the judge as the appellant’s letter to the judge never reached her. (Id. ¶ 60.)

Judge Barak-Erez condemned the appellant’s sending of the letter as inappropriate behavior but did not consider it as constituting an offense. The appellant was therefore declared innocent of the offense of threat for which she had been convicted, and all penalties against her based on the conviction were to be vacated. (Id. ¶¶ 68–69.)

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Chicago citation style:

Levush, Ruth. Israel: Supreme Court Holds Threat of Suicide Not a Criminal Offense. 2018. Web Page. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2018-02-15/israel-supreme-court-holds-threat-of-suicide-not-a-criminal-offense/.

APA citation style:

Levush, R. (2018) Israel: Supreme Court Holds Threat of Suicide Not a Criminal Offense. [Web Page] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2018-02-15/israel-supreme-court-holds-threat-of-suicide-not-a-criminal-offense/.

MLA citation style:

Levush, Ruth. Israel: Supreme Court Holds Threat of Suicide Not a Criminal Offense. 2018. Web Page. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2018-02-15/israel-supreme-court-holds-threat-of-suicide-not-a-criminal-offense/>.