Elonis v. United States

Following is the case brief for Elonis v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2001 (2015)

Case Summary of Elonis v. United States:

  • Anthony Elonis, whose wife and family just left him, started writing violent rap lyrics on Facebook.  The lyrics were perceived as threats by his wife, his employer, a kindergarten class, and the FBI.
  • He was charged with the federal crime of making threats over interstate lines.
  • At trial, there was a question over the element of intent.  The trial court instructed the jury that the intent element is satisfied if a reasonable person could view Elonis’ statements as a threat.
  • Elonis was convicted and sentenced to jail.  The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the “reasonable person” standard was insufficient to prove intent.  Rather, the correct mental state is if the defendant knew he was making a threat, or knew his communication would be perceived as a threat.

Elonis v. United States Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Anthony Elonis’ wife left him, taking their young children with her.  Elonis then began posting violent rap lyrics on Facebook.  The rap lyrics were in the spirit of the rapper Eminem, who Elonis admired.  Although Elonis intermittently claimed in those posts that they were “fictitious” and that he was exercising his First Amendment rights, his wife and his employer perceived them as threats.  His wife obtained a protection order against him, and his employer fired him.

Elonis’ lyrics also alluded to engaging in a kindergarten class shooting, which caught the attention of the FBI.  After two FBI agents visited Elonis’ house, Elonis posted violent lyrics about the agents.  Elonis was then charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §875(c), which makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.”

At trial, because the statute does not provide a state-of-mind or intent element, the judge instructed the jury that the government has proven intent if a reasonable person would view Elonis’ lyrics as a threat (a negligence standard).

Procedural History:

  • Following a trial, Elonis was convicted and sentenced to jail.
  • The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction, and the trial judge’s instruction on intent.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does a criminal statute for making threats require proof that the defendant had the specific intent to threaten?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The mental state of negligence is insufficient for a statute criminalizing the making of a threat.  Rather, the required mental state is whether the defendant had the purpose to issue a threat, or had knowledge that the communication would be viewed as a threat.

Reasoning:

The criminal statute at issue does not contain a mental state element.  That does not mean, however, that a particular mental state is not required to prove a crime.  A guilty mind is necessary for a person to commit a crime.  So, when a criminal statute is silent on the required mental state, then the statute must be read to include a mental state necessary to separate wrongful from innocent conduct.

The negligence standard devised by the trial court in this case – whether a reasonable person would view something as a threat – is not sufficient.  That is because the reasonable person standard does not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct on the person who transmitted the communication.

The better standard is one in which it is clear that the defendant intended a threat.  Accordingly, the mental state element should be whether the defendant had the purpose to threaten someone, or if the defendant knew that the communication will be viewed as a threat.  That standard was not used at Elonis’ trial.  Therefore, his conviction cannot stand.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring in Part, Dissenting in Part (Alito):

The Court’s opinion will cause confusion because it only provides a partial answer to the mental state is required for 18 U.S.C. §875(c).  It does not determine whether recklessness would suffice for the mental state element.  Therefore, courts that must actually apply this case will remain confused.

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas):

Nine of the eleven Circuit Courts of Appeal have addressed the issue of mental state for 18 U.S.C. §875(c) by using a general intent standard.  The Court’s opinion essentially overturns those rulings.  It also leaves those courts with uncertainty as to whether intent to threaten is required, or whether recklessness will be sufficient.  In addition, simply posting the threat should be enough to establish intent here.

Significance:

Elonis v. United States is a significant case because it is the first time the Court has heard a case involving threats over a social media platform.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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