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12.1: Elonis v. US 575 US____ (2015)

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    NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .


    elonis v. united states

    certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the third circuit

    No. 13–983. Argued December 1, 2014—Decided June 1, 2015

    After his wife left him, petitioner Anthony Douglas Elonis, under the pseudonym “Tone Dougie,” used the social networking Web siteFacebook 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 Face-book 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 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 . 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 252. 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 . 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 . 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 , n. 3. 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 . 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. 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, 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, 511 U. S., at 606–607. 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 (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 , 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.

    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.

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