Orange County, CA Criminal Defense Law Blog

Friday, January 02, 2015

Threatening Social Media Posts

When is a Threat Made on Social Media a Crime?

There is no lack of strong statements and opinions on social media, but when do these comments cross the line enabling the writer to be criminally charged with making a threat? In December of 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case where this is the key issue.

Anthony Elonis is a Pennsylvania resident convicted of the federal crime of making threatening statements relating to his estranged wife and law enforcement officials on the internet. He claims he had no intention of frightening anyone, his writings were "therapeutic" and they helped him cope with his broken marriage.

His attorney, John Elwood, argued that the prosecution needed to prove Elonis intended to create fear in others and make them feel threatened in order to be found guilty of the crime. "If he knows [his wife] is in fear he does not have the right to carry on," Elwood was quoted as saying.

Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, representing the federal government, told the justices Elonis’ intent was irrelevant and that the standard should be whether a reasonable person would have felt threatened. He said that the court needs to make it easier to hold people accountable for their words, and that Elonis’ use of rap lyrics did not turn threats into an artistic or therapeutic expression.

Elonis was sentenced to nearly four years in prison after being convicted of threatening to injure another person for posting writings such as: 

• "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."
• "I've got enough explosives to take care of the state police and the sheriff's department."
• "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."

In order for  Elonis to be convicted of the crime of threatening in the state of California the prosecution would not need to show that he intended to follow through on his alleged threats.  All the prosecution would have need to show is that his alleged threats to commit a crime that could result in great bodily injury or death caused his ex-wife fear. 
If you have questions about social media, crime and legal issues involving threatening, contact criminal defense attorney Mark McDonald at his Orange County office by calling (888)686-7874 today for a free consultation.


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