Monday, June 15, 2015

Supreme Court Overturns Conviction Related to Facebook Threats

In Elonis v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 13-983 (2015), petitioner sought relief from a conviction related to his Facebook posts that were deemed to be in violation of 18 U.S.C. §875(c), the transmission in interstate commerce of “communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.”Petitioner argued the jury was provided with inappropriate instructions that required only a reasonable person standard, without any showing of subjective criminal intent, to determine whether his statements on Facebook would be regarded as a threat.

Back in 2010, after petitioner’s wife left him and he lost his job, he began to post rap lyrics on Facebook that contained violent language and imagery concerning his wife, former co-workers, the police force, and local schools. Petitioner’s former employer informed the FBI who began monitoring his Facebook activity and eventually arrested him for violation of §875(c). 

In 2012, when issuing jury instructions, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania followed the decision in United States v. Kosma, 951 F.2d 549, 557 (3d Cir. 1991) related to §875(c), and held that a statement is a true threat when a reasonable person would foresee the statement would be interpreted as a threat. Following those instructions, the jury convicted petitioner and he was sentenced to 44 months in jail.

In 2013, on appeal to the Third Circuit, petitioner unsuccessfully argued that the jury instruction should have required the Government to prove that petitioner intended to communicate a ”true threat.”

On June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit and held that requiring only negligence with respect to the communication of a threat is not sufficient to support a conviction under §875(c) and remanded the case for further proceedings to determine whether recklessness suffices for criminal liability under§875(c). As stated by the U.S. Supreme Court, although a reasonable person standard is a feature of civil liability in tort law, the Court “ha[s] long been reluctant to infer that a negligence standard was intended in criminal statutes.” Rogers v. United States, 422 U. S. 35, 47 (1975) (Marshall, J., concurring).