United States Supreme Court Rejects “Reasonable Person” Standard for Determining Criminal Responsibility for Threatening Another – Elonis v. United States

In a world in which it is possible for others, including police and other government officials, to monitor the vast majority of our communications with others via cellphones, computers, and other electronic devices, the line between legitimate state action designed to protect would-be victims of crimes and the rights of the criminally accused can sometimes get fuzzy.

So, too, can the question of what is a true threat to society or a specific individual and what is simply an exercise of one’s freedom of expression under the U.S. Constitution. Recently, the highest court in the land rendered an opinion in a case concerning some of these important issues.

The Facts of the Case

In the case of Elonis v. United States, the defendant was a man who, after his wife of nearly seven years took their children and left him, posted graphically violent rap lyrics on a social media site. The lyrics, which he wrote himself but usually posted under a rap-style nom de plume, pertained not only to his wife but also to co-workers, law enforcement, and a kindergarten class. The defendant usually put disclaimers with the lyrics stating that they were fictitious. His wife apparently did not believe the disclaimer and obtained a protective order in state court against the defendant.

The defendant was also fired from his job due to the lyrics, and his former employer informed federal officials about the defendant’s alleged threats. After the officials monitored the defendant’s social media account for a period of time, the defendant was charged with five counts of transmitting, via interstate commerce, a communication threatening to injure another person. At trial, the defendant requested that the court instruct the jury that the government had to prove that there was a true threat. This request was denied, and the district court instead instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty if a reasonable person would foresee that the statements would be interpreted as a threat. The defendant was convicted on four counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, holding that the statute only required the intent to communicate words that a reasonable person would view as a threat.

On Appeal to the United States Supreme Court

On appeal to the nation’s highest court, the Third Circuit’s order was reversed, and the case was remanded. According to the Court, negligence was not sufficient to support a conviction under Section 875(c). Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts phrased the issue as whether the statute or the First Amendment required a showing that the defendant was aware of the threatening nature of the communication. The court first noted that the statute in question does not require that a defendant have any particular mental state or that he or she intend the communication in question to be a threat. The court went on to state that the “reasonable person” standard under which the defendant was convicted was a familiar feature of civil liability in tort law but was not consistent with the conventional requirements for criminal conduct, which requires an actual awareness of the wrongdoing. The court declined to reach the issue of whether a finding of recklessness would result in criminal responsibility, stating that the lower courts should be given an opportunity to decide the issue before the Court entertained such a question.

To Get Assistance with a Massachusetts Criminal Charge

Criminal case law is ever-evolving. If you are facing criminal charges in a Massachusetts state court or in federal district court, you need an attorney who can fully and accurately advise you of your legal rights. To speak to a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense attorney, call the Law Office of John C. Manoog, III at 888-262-6664. We represent the criminally accused throughout the Cape Cod area, including Hyannis and Plymouth.

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