High court invokes ancient legal principle to throw out man’s social-media conviction

J. Bradley Smith of Arnold & Smith, PLLC answers the question “Can I be arrested without evidence against me?”


The United States Supreme Court has thrown out the conviction of a man who prosecutors accused of threatening his wife, coworkers, a kindergarten class and law-enforcement officials in online social-media posts.

Blogger icon Charlotte Criminal Lawyer Mecklenburg DWI AttorneyThe man, Anthony Douglas Elonis, posted what he later described as “rap lyrics” on his Facebook page. The posts contained violent statements about Elonis’s wife and others. Federal officials charged Elonis with violating a criminal statute that makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat… to injure the person of another,” according to the National Law Review.

Elonis was convicted after a jury trial. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld his conviction. Elonis appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his trial court committed error when it refused to provide an instruction to the jury, before jurors began deliberating, providing that Elonis intended the Facebook posts to constitute threats.

Instead, the trial court told jurors that Elonis was guilty if he intentionally made “a statement in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual.” In other words, the jury was told that if a reasonable person would have read Elonis’s posts as threats, then he was guilty, regardless of whether he intended the statements to serve as threats.

In a seven-to-two decision, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, holding that jurors should have considered Elonis’s mental state before finding him guilty of violating the federal statute. The statute itself “does not explicitly require proof of intent,” the National Law Review notes, but courts have long interpreted criminal statutes as applicable only if the wrongdoer is conscious of the criminality of his or her act.

This concept—guilty mind, or mens rea—dates all the way back to the Roman criminal code. In order to be found guilty of a crime at common law, or pursuant to the body of law that serves as the basis for the American legal system, a defendant must exhibit mens rea as well as actus reus—a guilty mind and a guilty act.

“Federal criminal liability,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the high court’s majority in Elonis, “does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.”

Some statutes do, however, impose criminal liability for acts, even where an accused lacked the requisite “guilty mind” to commit a criminal act. These statutes are known as “strict liability” statutes. One common “strict liability” statute, found in the laws of most, if not all, states, is the statutory-rape statute. In order to be found guilty of statutory rape, an accused of a certain age must only be found to have had sexual relations with a younger person of a certain age. An accused is guilty only by virtue of engaging in the sexual act; his or her state-of-mind is irrelevant.

Many courts and legal experts have voiced concern in recent years about the spate of new criminal statutes imposing criminal liability upon persons absent any showing of mens rea.

If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime and is in need of the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney, please give me a call to set up an appointment today. Arnold & Smith, PLLC is a Charlotte based criminal defense, traffic violation defense and civil litigation law firm servicing Charlotte and the surrounding area. If you or someone you know need legal assistance, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828   or find additional resources here.



About the Author

jbradley.jpgBrad Smith is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of criminal defense, DUI / DWI defense and traffic defense.

Mr. Smith was born and raised in Charlotte. He began his legal career as an Assistant District Attorney before entering private practice in 2006.

In his free time, Mr. Smith enjoys traveling, boating, golf, hiking and spending time with his wife and three children.







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