Supreme Court Tosses Conviction for Facebook Threat

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.

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he petitioner, Anthony Elonis, appealed his federal conviction for posting rap lyrics on his Facebook page that his ex-wife had found threatening.  Elonis was convicted under a federal statute that makes it a crime to communicate “any threat to injure the person of another.”  He was sentenced to 44 months.

CIR filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in support of Elonis.  CIR urged the Court to rule that federal criminal statutes require proof of criminal intent unless Congress expressly stipulates otherwise.  CIR argued that expansive federal criminal statutes encroach on the traditional responsibility of states to legislate crimes and therefore courts should not interpret those statutes expansively absent explicit Congressional intent to do so.

Elonis adopted the name of a fictitious rapper (“Tone Dougie”) and posted several rap songs that included violent images.  He contended that he did not intend to threaten acts of unlawful violence (what the law calls “true threats”).  He claimed that he was an aspiring rapper and that such “art is about pushing limits.”  Several of the posts included disclaimers and other suggestions that they were not made in earnest.

The trial judge ruled that his subjective intent was irrelevant; the jury should convict Elonis, the judge said, if the lyrics would appear threatening to a reasonable person, whether or not Elonis himself meant to threaten anyone.

Case Status: Victory.

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