On June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Elonis v. United States, No. 13-983, holding that to support a conviction under a federal statute that makes it a crime to communicate a threat, prosecutors must prove a mental state higher than negligence.
Federal law makes it a crime to transmit “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.” 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). After Petitioner Anthony Douglas Elonis’s wife left him, he posted several rap lyrics on Facebook containing graphically violent language and imagery. The FBI arrested Elonis, and he was charged with five counts of violating the federal law. At trial, the district court denied Elonis’s requested jury instruction requiring prosecutors to prove that he intended to communicate a “true threat” and instead instructed that Elonis could be found guilty if a reasonable person would foresee that his statements would be interpreted as a threat. The jury found Elonis guilty. He appealed, and the Third Circuit affirmed his conviction.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that a negligent state of mind is not sufficient to support a conviction of Section 875(c). The statute itself does not state whether the defendant must intend that a communication contain a threat; it does not specify any mental state requirement at all. But in light of the longstanding principle of criminal law requiring a defendant to be “blameworthy in mind,” the Court concluded that some minimum mental state is required. Because “the crucial element separating legal innocence from wrongful conduct is the threatening nature of the communication,” the “mental state requirement must therefore apply to the fact that the communication contains a threat.” 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 requirement will be satisfied. Whether the standard can also be satisfied by recklessness, the Court declined to decide. Elonis had also argued that his statements were protected under the First Amendment, but because the Court resolved the appeal on the basis of statutory interpretation, it declined to discuss the First Amendment issue.
Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.