U.S. Supreme Court

Threats conviction is overturned in Facebook rants case; negligence not enough, SCOTUS says

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The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the threats conviction of a man who argued he had no intent to carry out his Facebook rants.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion (PDF) in Elonis v. United States, which interpreted the federal threats law to require consideration of the defendant’s mental state. SCOTUSblog has early coverage here.

The federal law barred the interstate transmission of threats to injure another. Though the law didn’t set out any intent requirement, criminal laws are generally interpreted to require some kind of mental state that separates wrongful conduct from otherwise innocent conduct, Roberts said. Because Elonis’ conviction was not premised on the need for scienter, it must be overturned, Roberts said.

“Elonis’ conviction cannot stand,” Roberts wrote. “The jury was instructed that the government need prove only that a reasonable person would regard Elonis’ communications as threats, and that was error. Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.”

In his Facebook posts, Anthony Elonis wrote about killing his estranged wife, an FBI agent investigating his posts and former co-workers at an amusement park. He also referenced the First Amendment and wrote disclaimers, saying his posts were fictitious lyrics and didn’t reflect his views, values or beliefs. Rap music scholars had submitted an amicus brief siding with Elonis.

Roberts’ opinion was joined in full by six justices. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred in part and dissented in part. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

Alito said Roberts’ opinion did not go far enough to set out the mental state required for a conviction. “The court holds that the jury instructions in this case were defective because they required only negligence in conveying a threat. But the court refuses to explain what type of intent was necessary. Did the jury need to find that Elonis had the purpose of conveying a true threat? Was it enough if he knew that his words conveyed such a threat? Would recklessness suffice? The court declines to say. Attorneys and judges are left to guess.”

Roberts countered the criticism, saying there is no dispute that the mental state requirement is satisfied if the defendant intends to issue a threat, or knows the communication will be viewed as a threat. Roberts said the court should not consider whether recklessness would support a conviction, because the issue was not briefed and was raised only briefly in oral arguments. Nor was there a need to address First Amendment issues, given the court’s reading of the statute, Roberts said.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: What is a ‘true threat’ on Facebook? SCOTUS to decide”

ABAJournal.com: “Rap music scholars aim to educate SCOTUS in threats case”

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