__ U.S. __ (2015), 13-983, Elonis v. United States

Docket Nº:13-983
Citation:__ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 2001, 192 L.Ed.2d 1, 83 U.S.L.W. 4360
Opinion Judge:ROBERTS, CHIEF JUSTICE.
Party Name:ANTHONY DOUGLAS ELONIS, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES
Attorney:John P. Elwood argued the cause for petitioner. Michael R. Dreeben argued the cause for respondent.
Judge Panel:ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. ALITO (In Part) JUSTICE ALITO, concurring in part and d...
Case Date:June 01, 2015
Court:United States Supreme Court
SUMMARY

Elonis used the Web site Facebook to post lyrics containing graphically violent language and imagery concerning his wife, co-workers, children, and law enforcement, interspersed with disclaimers that the lyrics were “fictitious” and that Elonis was exercising his First Amendment rights. His boss fired him. His wife obtained an order of protection. Elonis’s former employer contacted the FBI. The agency monitored Elonis’s Facebook activity and charged him under... (see full summary)

 
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Page __

__ U.S. __ (2015)

135 S.Ct. 2001, 192 L.Ed.2d 1, 83 U.S.L.W. 4360, 25 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 287

ANTHONY DOUGLAS ELONIS, PETITIONER

v.

UNITED STATES

No. 13-983

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 2015

Argued: December 1, 2014.

Editorial Note:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed official reporter.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

730 F.3d 321, reversed and remanded.

SYLLABUS

[135 S.Ct. 2002] [192 L.Ed.2d 6] After his wife left him, petitioner Anthony Douglas Elonis, under the pseudonym " Tone Dougie," used the social networking Web site Facebook to post self-styled rap lyrics containing graphically violent language and imagery concerning his wife, co-workers, a kindergarten class, and state and federal law enforcement. These posts were often interspersed with disclaimers that the lyrics were " fictitious" and not intended to depict real persons, and with statements that Elonis was exercising his First Amendment rights. Many who knew him saw his posts as threatening, however, including his boss, who fired him for threatening co-workers, and his wife, who sought and was granted a state court protection-from-abuse order against him.

When Elonis's former employer informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the posts, the agency began monitoring Elonis's Facebook activity and eventually arrested him. He was charged with five counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce " any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another." At trial, Elonis requested a jury instruction that the Government was required to prove that he intended to communicate a " true threat." Instead, the District Court told the jury that Elonis could be found guilty if a reasonable person would foresee that his statements would be interpreted as a threat. Elonis was convicted on four of the five counts and renewed his jury instruction [135 S.Ct. 2003] challenge on appeal. The Third Circuit affirmed, holding that Section 875(c) requires only the intent to communicate words that the defendant understands, and that a reasonable person would view as a threat.

Held : The Third Circuit's instruction, requiring only negligence with respect to the communication of a threat, is not sufficient to support a conviction under Section 875(c). Pp. 7-17.

(a) Section 875(c) does not indicate whether the defendant must intend that the communication contain a threat, and the parties can show no indication of a particular mental state requirement in the statute's text. Elonis claims that the word " threat," by definition, conveys the intent to inflict harm. But common definitions of " threat" speak to what the statement conveys--not to the author's mental state. The Government argues that the express " intent to extort" requirements in neighboring Sections 875(b) and (d) should preclude courts from implying an unexpressed " intent to threaten" requirement in Section 875(c). The most that can be concluded from such a comparison, however, is that Congress did not mean to confine Section 875(c) to crimes of extortion, not that it meant to exclude a mental state requirement. Pp. 7-9.

(b) The Court does not regard " mere omission from a criminal enactment of any mention of criminal intent" as dispensing with such a requirement. Morissette

v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 250, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288. This rule of construction reflects the basic principle that " wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal," and that a defendant must be " blameworthy in mind" before he can be found guilty. Id., at [192 L.Ed.2d 7] 252,72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288. The " general rule" is that a guilty mind is " a necessary element in the indictment and proof of every crime." United States

v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 251, 42 S.Ct. 301, 66 L.Ed. 604, T.D. 3375. Thus, criminal statutes are generally interpreted " to include broadly applicable scienter requirements, even where the statute . . . does not contain them." United States

v. X-Citement Video, Inc., 513 U.S. 64, 70, 115 S.Ct. 464, 130 L.Ed.2d 372. This does not mean that a defendant must know that his conduct is illegal, but a defendant must have knowledge of " the facts that make his conduct fit the definition of the offense." Staples

v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 608, n. 3, 114 S.Ct. 1793, 128 L.Ed.2d 608. Federal criminal statutes that are silent on the required mental state should be read to include " only that mens rea which is necessary to separate" wrongful from innocent conduct. Carter

v. United States, 530 U.S. 255, 269, 120 S.Ct. 2159, 147 L.Ed.2d 203. In some cases, a general requirement that a defendant act knowingly is sufficient, but where such a requirement " would fail to protect the innocent actor," the statute " would need to be read to require . . . specific intent." Ibid. Pp. 9-13.

(c) The " presumption in favor of a scienter requirement should apply to each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct." X-Citement Video, 513 U.S. , at 72, 115 S.Ct. 464, 130 L.Ed.2d 372. In the context of Section 875(c), that requires proof that a communication was transmitted and that it contained a threat. And because " the crucial element separating legal innocence from wrongful conduct," id., at 73, 115 S.Ct. 464, 130 L.Ed.2d 372, is the threatening nature of the communication, the mental state requirement must apply to the fact that the communication contains a threat. Elonis's conviction was premised solely on how his posts would be viewed by a reasonable person, a standard feature of civil liability in tort law inconsistent with the conventional criminal conduct requirement of " awareness of some wrongdoing," Staples, [135 S.Ct. 2004] 511 U.S. at 606-607, 114 S.Ct. 1793, 128 L.Ed.2d 608. This Court " ha[s] long been reluctant to infer that a negligence standard was intended in criminal statutes." Rogers

v. United States, 422 U.S. 35, 47, 95 S.Ct. 2091, 45 L.Ed.2d 1 (Marshall, J., concurring). And the Government fails to show that the instructions in this case required more than a mental state of negligence. Hamling

v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 94 S.Ct. 2887, 41 L.Ed.2d 590, distinguished. Section 875(c)'s mental state requirement is satisfied if the defendant transmits a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat. The Court declines to address whether a mental state of recklessness would also suffice. Given the disposition here, it is unnecessary to consider any First Amendment issues. Pp. 13-17.

730 F.3d 321, reversed and remanded.

John P. Elwood argued the cause for petitioner.

Michael R. Dreeben argued the cause for respondent.

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

[192 L.Ed.2d 8] ROBERTS, CHIEF JUSTICE.

Federal law makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce " any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another." 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). Petitioner was convicted of violating this provision under instructions that required the jury to find that he communicated what a reasonable person would regard as a threat. The question is whether the statute also requires that the defendant be aware of the threatening nature of the communication, and--if not--whether the First Amendment requires such a showing.

I

A

Anthony Douglas Elonis was an active user of the social networking Web site Facebook. Users of that Web site may post items on their Facebook page that are accessible to other users, including Facebook " friends" who are notified when new content is posted. In May 2010, Elonis's wife of nearly seven years left him, taking with her their two young children. Elonis began " listening to more violent music" and posting self-styled " rap" lyrics inspired by the music. App. 204, 226. [135 S.Ct. 2005] Eventually, Elonis changed the user name on his Facebook page from his actual name to a rap-style nom de plume, " Tone Dougie," to distinguish himself from his " on-line persona." Id., at 249, 265. The lyrics Elonis posted as " Tone Dougie" included graphically violent language and imagery. This material was often interspersed with disclaimers that the lyrics were " fictitious," with no intentional " resemblance to real persons." Id., at 331, 329. Elonis posted an explanation to another Facebook user that " I'm doing this for me. My writing is therapeutic." Id., at 329; see also id., at 205 (testifying that it " helps me to deal with the pain" ).

Elonis's co-workers and friends viewed the posts in a different light. Around Halloween of 2010, Elonis posted a photograph of himself and a co-worker at a " Halloween Haunt" event at the amusement park where they worked. In the photograph, Elonis was holding a toy knife against his co-worker's neck, and in the caption Elonis wrote, " I wish." Id., at 340. Elonis was not Facebook friends with the co-worker and did not " tag" her, a Facebook feature that would have alerted her to the posting. Id., at 175; Brief for Petitioner 6, 9. But the chief of park security was a Facebook " friend" of Elonis, saw the photograph, and fired him. App. 114-116; Brief for Petitioner 9.

In response, Elonis posted a new entry on his Facebook page:

" Moles! Didn't I tell y'all I had several? Y'all sayin' I had access to keys for all the f***in' gates. That I have sinister plans for all...

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