Supreme Court: Intent Matters for Internet Threats

 Posted on June 01, 2015 in Criminal Defense

supreme court, SCOTUS, Illinois Criminal Defense AttorneyVirtually everyone who uses social media is familiar with the idea of a “Facebook rant.” Many have probably even posted their own from time to time. While most such rants are generally written off as an individual venting or blowing off steam, they can sometimes be interpreted much more seriously. This was exactly the situation for a Pennsylvania man five years ago who was convicted on four counts of transmitting threats via the internet. The United States Supreme Court, however, recently ruled that the intent of the person making such threats must be considered when prosecuting such charges.

The case Elonis vs. United States has its origin in a domestic dispute from several years ago. After his wife left him, taking his children with her, an Allentown, PA, man named Anthony Elonis took to Facebook. His posts were violently explicit, often imitating the styles of rappers and hip-hop artists. Some posts even made specific mention of his First Amendment rights to free speech. While he maintained that his posts were a therapeutic form of art, he was convicted of transmitting threats on the grounds that a reasonable person would take his words and thoughts seriously.

In a 7-2 decision, the United States Supreme Court this week determined that the interpretation by a reasonable person is not necessarily enough to justify a federal conviction. The decision, however, was not based on the First Amendment, but on the application of a federal law. The intent behind the posts must be considered, not just how they are taken by others. In writing the majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts explained, “Federal criminal liability does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.” It is important to note that, while the decision overturned the initial conviction, it acknowledged that intent was never appropriately considered by the jury, and, based on such consideration, the conviction could potentially stand.

In a partially dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito expressed concern that this decision will lead to “confusion and serious problems.” If mental state is important, according to Justice Alito, a standard for that mental state needs to be clearly established, not left to a court’s discretion. Alito also indicated that the recklessness of the posts exceeded the requirement to be considered wrongful conduct, and that such recklessness has been held as “morally culpable” in many other cases.

Regardless of the recent decision by the Supreme Court, transmitting threats online can lead to serious criminal consequences. If you have been charged with transmitting threats or any other type of internet crime, contact an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney. We will review your case and help you understand your options under the law. Call today to schedule a free consultation.

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