U.S. Supreme Court Requires Intent for Criminal Threats
The United State Supreme Court ruled today that in cases of criminal threats, the communicator’s intent matters more than the receiver’s interpretation.
In the case at issue, Elonis v. U.S. (No. 13-983), Anthony Elonis was prosecuted for making threatening communications, under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). Elonis posted statements on Facebook after his wife left him and took their two children. In one post he said, “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” In another post after his ex-wife persuaded a judge to issue a protective order, he asked “Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
At trial, Elonis’ ex-wife testified that the comments caused her to fear for her life. Elonis described his posts as “fictitious lyrics,” likened himself to controversial rappers like Eminem, claimed his posts were a form of therapy to cope with his divorce, and argued he never intended to harm or injure anyone. The jury was instructed that to find Elonis guilty the prosecution need only prove that a reasonable person would regard the communications as threats. Elonis was convicted and sentenced to 44 months in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that the trial judge provided an erroneous jury instruction, and overturned Elonis’ conviction. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority and said criminal convictions require “awareness of some wrongdoing,” and not merely the subjective interpretation of a “reasonable person.” In other words, the prosecution must prove that the communicator threatened with intent to injure another person. Since the jury did not decide this issue, Elonis’ conviction must be overturned.
In Minnesota, the Terroristic Threats statute (Minn. Stat. § 609.713, renamed “Threats of Violence”) requires threats, “directly or indirectly, to commit any crime of violence with purpose to terrorize another … or in reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror …” This Supreme Court decision may open the door for challenges to the second clause of the Minnesota statute.
If you have questions about federal or state criminal threat statutes, contact one of our criminal defense attorneys today at 763-421-6366 for a free consultation.