A federal statute (18 U.S.C. Sec. 875(c)) makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce communications containing threats to injure someone. Anthony Elonis, who was an active Facebook user, placed posts on his Facebook page that purportedly threatened patrons and employees of the park where he worked, his ex-wife, police officers, and school-age children. His online activities were eventually brought to the attention of the FBI. An agent created a Facebook account to just to monitor Elonis’ online activities. The agent later visited his home, after which Elonis posted material on his page threatening her. A grand jury charged Elonis with five counts of violating the above-referenced statute. He went to trial and lost, was sentenced to a custodial term of almost four years with three years of supervised release, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
At this point, some legal background is unfortunately necessary. Every crime consists broadly of two parts – a physical act or acts and a particular mental state. The act or acts have to be accomplished with the required mental state in order to constitute a crime. Some criminal statutes will say specifically which mental state is required in order to make out that particular offense (e.g., purposely, knowingly, recklessly, intentionally). But not every criminal statute defines the required mental state. The statute that Elonis violated did not include a particular mental state, and the question before the Court was which mental state was required to support the conviction and whether or not Elonis’ jury was properly instructed on this issue. The Court ultimately found that the jury instruction was defective, reversed the Third Circuit’s decision, and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The Court’s decision contains a terrific analysis of the interplay between mental states and potentially criminal conduct, and how to ascribe a particular mental state to a set of potentially criminal acts when the statute in question is silent on this issue. All of that will certainly be of great interest to lawyers and judges but, given the prominent role social networking sites play in our daily lives, what does this case mean for the average user of these electronic media? Continue reading