federal criminal laws

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Elonis v. US

The Court also plays an important role in interpreting federal criminal statutes. Perhaps this year’s highest-profile example was Elonis v. United States. [Read our Preview here.] Anthony Elonis was charged under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) (“Section 875”) for writing threatening posts on Facebook about his employer and colleagues, then his estranged wife, then the state police and sheriff’s department, and finally a kindergarten class. Despite his arguments that the government could not prove actual criminal intent motivated his conduct (as opposed to, say, an attempt at humor or even rap lyrics), a jury convicted Elonis of the charges based on an instruction that no subjective intent to threaten was necessary to violate Section 875(c). Addressing another circuit split, the Supreme Court took up the question of whether a criminal defendant’s subjective intent must be proven by the government beyond a reasonable doubt to sustain a conviction under Section 875(c). The Court held that the courts below erred by requiring only proof that Elonis made the threats notwithstanding his mens rea, or state of mind. The Court noted that a standard requirement for any criminal conviction is a guilty mind, or an appropriate mens rea, and that federal criminal statutes, such as Section 875, that are silent on the necessary mental state should be read to require “only that mens rea which is necessary to separate” innocent conduct from wrongful conduct. Eight Justices ultimately concluded that a conviction under the law required subjective or specific intent in Elonis’ mind to make threats. The decision left unanswered a second question raised in the case: whether or not communications such as these are subject to the speech protections of the First Amendment.