SCOTUS reversed the conviction of a man who made violent threats on Facebook, changing the intent the prosecution must prove for the jury to convict, Fairfax Criminal Lawyer explains.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man convicted of making violent threats on Facebook, holding that the jury was improperly instructed that the government need only prove that a reasonable person would regard the defendant’s communications as threats.  Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that “federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.”

The defendant had been charged under a federal statute that makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.”  The charges were brought after the defendant posted self-styled rap lyrics on Facebook with graphic and violent language and imagery regarding his wife, co-workers, a kindergarten class, and state and federal law enforcement.

At trial, the defendant’s attorney requested a jury instruction that the government must prove that he intended to communicate a “true threat.”  Instead, the court instructed the jury that the defendant could be found guilty if a “reasonable person” would foresee that his statements would be interpreted as threats.  Reversing the conviction, the Supreme Court held that the government must prove more than that a reasonable person would foresee that the posts could be interpreted as threats, concluding that such a rule would apply criminal penalties for mere negligence.

This Supreme Court decision is a big step towards scaling back broad government authority to criminally punish speech deemed to be threatening to others.  Most importantly, it requires the government to prove actual intent on the part of the accused—an important element of criminal liability—instead of relying on an objective “reasonable person” standard.  The practical impact of this case on prosecutions for threats to others will remain to be seen.

If you, your family member, or a friend is accused of making threats to others, contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Greenspun Shapiro PC.

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