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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

USSCT Issues Ruling in Facebook Threat Case

The United States Supreme Court issued a decision in a social media case yesterday. Elonis v. United States (June 1, 2015).  You might recall that we posted about this case on the blog previously.  This case involved a Pennsylvania man who had been convicted after he posted several violent messages on Facebook after his wife left him. The federal statute he was convicted of violating was 18 U. S. C. §875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.”  The Court overturned his conviction, holding that negligence alone is insufficient in a criminal threat case.

The lower court had convicted him based on the “reasonable person” standard – i.e., the jury was told the standard was whether a "reasonable person" would have understood his Facebook posts to be a threat. The question before the Court was whether the statute also requires that the defendant be aware of the threatening nature of the communication, and—if not—whether the First Amendment requires such a showing. The Court rejected the government's argument that evidence of an intent to make a threat was not required because the express language of the law did not require it. The Court held that "The fact that the statute does not specify any required mental state, however, does not mean that none exists. We have repeatedly held that “mere omission from a criminal enactment of any mention of criminal intent” should not be read “as dispensing with it.” Because the jury was instructed that the government need prove only that a reasonable person would regard Elonis’s communications as threats, without evidence of his mental state or intent, his conviction could not stand. 

Examples of some of his posts are below:

In a post about his wife, he wrote:  
There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you.
In another post he wrote:  
That’s it, I’ve had about enough I’m checking out and making a name for myself. Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class The only question is . . . which one? 
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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