In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction of Pennsylvania resident Anthony Elonis, who was prosecuted and was serving a prison sentence for posting rap lyrics on his Facebook page that his ex-wife found threatening. Elonis contended that he didn’t intend to threaten anyone; the lower courts said it didn’t matter what he intended so long as a “reasonable person” would find his postings to be threatening.
In a majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court ruled that federal criminal statutes require a finding of criminal intent for conviction unless Congress clearly states otherwise (and here it did not). To have criminal intent (a “guilty mind”) a defendant must know he is doing something wrong — in the Court’s words, that he is not engaging in “otherwise innocent” conduct. Merely showing that a reasonable person would regard Elonis’s posts as threatening was not enough. His mere negligence about that possibility was insufficient for a criminal conviction.
The Court’s requirement that a defendant know that his conduct was wrongful helps trim back recent efforts to prosecute citizens for innocent conduct that unwittingly violates increasingly obscure federal laws. Though citizens cannot claim ignorance of the law as an excuse, neither can they be prosecuted for conduct unless they at least knew it was wrongful.