SCOTUS decision on criminal threats in United States v. Elonis

We have previously commented on United States v. Elonis, a criminal threats case before the Supreme Court this term.  The decision came down today, in favor of the defendant.

The defendant had been convicted at trial of threatening several individuals on Facebook.  The trial judge refused to instruct the jury that a conviction required proof that the defendant intended to make a threat.  Although the jury was told that the government must prove that a reasonable person would interpret the defendant’s words (or “posts”) as a threat, it did not have to prove the defendant meant his words to be taken that way.

The Supreme Court decided these instructions were error and that the statute required proof of the defendant’s intent to threaten.  The ruling was based on the Court’s long tradition of interpreting criminal statutes to require intent unless the legislature clearly intended otherwise.  The question of whether proof of “recklessness” was sufficient to meet this burden was left open.

Unfortunately for state court practitioners, the Court did not decide whether the First Amendment requires proof of intent to threaten.  Because federal law required proof of intent, it was not necessary for the Court to decide if the Constitution did as well.  The case will therefore have limited application outside the federal courts.