When A Threat Becomes A Crime
A Miami Beach man was recently accused of threatening President Trump on Twitter. He sent the threat directly to Secret Service, challenging them to stop his Inauguration Day surprise. They did, and Dominic Puopolo, who used the screen name of Lord Jesus Christ, is now in federal custody.
Sending a threat to the President, to an ex-wife, or to a judge is a federal felony, punishable by as much as 20 years in the federal penitentiary. But what constitutes a threat? What if the person sending a letter or email is merely angry and has no intention of carrying out the threat? What if the author is demonstrably suffering from mental problems? And are there times where the pre-trial process greatly exceeds the length and difficulty of the eventual trial of a threats case?
When it comes to threatening communication prosecutions, federal prosecutors are increasingly finding themselves stuck at the intersection of crazy and criminal. It is a juncture where seemingly serious threats might actually be meaningless rambling but where internet rants might actually reflect a true intent to harm or kill the stated victim. And in today’s bitter, divided, and tumultuous political climate, would anyone bet against threatening communications being sent to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? If so, please contact me, as I’ll definitely take the other side of that wager.
“The President must die. When I am released I will kill him.” U.S. v. Rendelman, 641 F.3d 36, 40 (4th Cir. 2011).
[If the President refuses to meet with me, he] “will get the worse Christmas present ever, “will suffer for 30 days,” and “will wish for death but death will not come for him.” U.S. v. Dillon, 738 F.3d, 284, 288 (D.C. Cir. 2013).
“Enough elementary schools in a ten-mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined…And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class.” U.S. v. Elonis, 135 S. Ct. 2001, 2006 (2015).
The Easy Case
Certainly, a decent chunk of these prosecutions stem from imprisoned inmates taking the time to send a “I can’t wait to kill you” letter to their prosecutor (usually spelled “persecutor” in these letters) or to the judge who sentenced them to the “outrageous” sentence, often a term of imprisonment that lies perfectly within the sentencing guidelines. Further, these jail bards conveniently tend to include a return address, handwriting suitable for comparison, their name and even their inmate number, to so to avoid confusion. The sole issue in this type of case tends to be simply whether additional consecutive time will make any sort of difference to our “Cape Fear” penitentiary pal.
The Harder Case
Creatively worded threats, however, occasionally generate serious issues as to sufficiency. For example, in U.S. v. Zavrel, 384 F.3d 130 (3rd Cir. 2004), the defendant and her roommate mailed 17 envelopes containing corn starch to juveniles whom she blamed for her son’s juvenile prosecution for, wait for it, terroristic threats. The corn starch resembled anthrax, a deadly chemical that had in fact been mailed to several potential victims in late 2001. The issue decided by the Third Circuit was whether the simple mailing of corn starch established a “communication” for purposes of proving a threatening mailing under 18 U.S.C. Section 876. It was.
The other common issue, which made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, is whether the sender of the threat has to in fact intend to harm the recipient (subjective standard) or whether the sender must simply intend to communicate threatening words which are reasonably understood by the recipient to constitute a threat (objective standard). In Elonis, (2015) Chief Justice Robert’s opinion adopted the latter standard, resolving a Circuit-split that had existed for some time. Still, the issue of whether the recipient reasonably views the letter or email as a threat remains a regular feature of these cases.
The Hardest Case
The hard case is when the defendant says horrible things that are directed toward some public, possibly political figure, but it’s not clear that he or she constitutes a “true threat” to the recipient. And, the defendant already is serving a substantial prison sentence. These are the class of cases that the federal criminal justice system is least likely to deal with in a satisfactory way. There tends to be a perfect storm of factors coming together to complicate the superficially simple case: “important” victims, such as judges, the President, or prosecutors; a defendant with a serious, pre-existing mental health problem, and threatening language that is both graphic and somewhat implausible.
For example, one defendant claimed that he literally would crucify his intended victim, before signing off with “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and some defendants openly discuss the jurisprudence of threatening communications while enlightening readers to the fact that a person “who placed a mortar launcher in the cornfield across from his wife’s residence would have a clear line of sight through the sun room…” Elonis, at 2005. And the man who threatened President Trump via Twitter casually mentioned that he is Jesus.
The typical court process for such a case is that the judge orders a mental health evaluation for competency, which results in the prisoner being shuttled to one of several federal facilities which include competency and criminal responsibility assessments. Not surprisingly, some of these defendants are kept months before they decide not to take the prescribed medications, often based upon the belief that the prison medical personnel are just part of a grand conspiracy that continues to manifest itself through each of the defendant’s cases. Not a lightly undertaken process, forcible medication of a defendant requires significant, and often lengthy, litigation as well. To the extent that the defendants fire their attorneys out of frustration, a fairly common development, the case slows to a snail’s pace.
And this becomes the most obvious challenge to the criminal justice system in this realm – the defendant, clearly suffering from some mental deficiency, is incarcerated pre-verdict for longer than his applicable sentencing guidelines and in some instances at, or approaching, the statutory maximum for his crime. Yet, he may in fact pose a danger to the recipient of his threat, so dismissing the charge is not a favored result either. In the current climate where the likelihood of these challenging cases is on the rise, the question is whether anyone or any institution will take the lead in balancing ideas of deterrence and punishment with the practical reality that many of these defendants fall outside the mainstream in terms of mental health as well as case resolution. Nobody wants to travel down the wrong road at this intersection, so bet on reaction, not pro-action.