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Name: Elonis v. United States
Case #: 13-983
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 06/01/2015
Subsequent History: 135 S.Ct. 2001
Summary

Reversal was required where conviction for making threats (18 U.S.C § 875(c)) was premised on how the threats would be perceived by a reasonable person and not on defendant’s intent to threaten. Elonis posted rap lyrics on Facebook containing graphically violent material about his wife and coworkers, including a statement that he believed it was illegal for him to say that someone out there should kill his wife. These posts were interspersed with disclaimers that the lyrics were fictitious and not about real people. However, many who read the posts viewed them as threatening; Elonis was fired for making threats against his coworkers and his wife obtained a restraining order against him. The FBI began monitoring his postings after Elonis’ employer contacted them. Elonis was charged in federal court with using interstate commerce to make a communication containing a threat to injure the person of another (18 U.S.C § 875(c)). At trial, Elonis requested that the court instruct that the offense required proof that he intended to communicate a threat. Instead, the court instructed the offense required proof that a reasonable person would foresee that the statements would be interpreted as a threat. The Third Circuit affirmed. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed and remanded. Although the federal statute did not specify a particular mental state, the Court has held repeatedly that mere omission of intent should not be read as dispensing with it. The general rule is that a guilty mind is a necessary element of every crime. Here, Elonis’ conviction was premised solely on how his posts would be understood by a reasonable person, and not on his intent to threaten. Use of the reasonable person standard reduces culpability to a crime of negligence, which is not appropriate in the context of criminal statutes.