Are federal authorities using Twitter for prosecutions?

Can criminal motive or intent really be discerned from social media posts? Sites like Facebook and Twitter can be accessed by smartphone apps -- a medium format that hardly encourages lengthy prose and strict grammar. Yet one 26-year-old man is now facing potential felony charges for a five-word Twitter message, or Tweet, about President Obama that he characterizes as a stupid joke.

Under federal law, threatening the life of a president or other individual under Secret Service can be punishable by prison time of up to five years, as well as a fine up to $250,000. What’s more, prosecutors bringing charges under this provision do not need to prove that the criminal defendant actually intended to follow through on his or her threat.

With punishments that severe, California readers might think that the law would have an absolute deterrent effect. Yet authorities report that an average of 10 threats a week are made against President Obama, and comparable numbers were received during former President George W. Bush’s years in office.

Notably, authorities do have some discretion in determining which threats they will actually prosecute. A criminal defense lawyer might also assert that the delivery method of an alleged threat should also be considered. For example, an in-person threat would likely come across as more intimidating and potentially dangerous than a Tweet.

Other mitigating factors that might influence the way prosecutors proceed against an alleged defendant might be a prior criminal record, as well as whether the individual was sober at the time of the threat’s commission. In this case, the 26-year-old was reportedly drunk during his second and most recent round of purportedly threatening Tweets. Does that context really sound like a legitimate threat?

Source: nytimes.com, “140 Characters Spell Charges and Jail,” Robbie Brown, July 2, 2013

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