Supreme Court: Federal Threat Statute Requires More Than Negligence

The high court rejected the "reasonable person" standard.

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that negligent behavior isn’t enough for a conviction under a federal law making it a felony to send a communication containing “any threat to injure the person of another.” (Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. ___ (2015); 18 U.S.C. § 875(c).)

The case before the Court involved a defendant who posted violent rap-like lyrics that referred to his estranged wife, his co-workers, a kindergarten class, and law enforcement. The trial judge instructed the jury that a statement qualifies as a threat when a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would foresee that it would be viewed as a “serious expression” of intent to injure or kill.

The Supreme Court overturned the defendant’s four convictions because of this instruction. The problem, the majority explained, was that the instruction allowed for a guilty verdict without consideration of the defendant’s state of mind. It didn’t, for instance, focus on whether the defendant intended his posts as threats or anticipated that the subjects would interpret them as such.

For more on the case, see Is a “Negligent” Threat Really a Threat?