Appeals Court Agrees Craigslist Posting Specific Enough for Criminal Threat Charges – U.S. v. Stock

September 3, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

I was interested to read a recent case about how specific a defendant must be in his or her speech to “make a threat” under federal criminal law. This issue came up in United States v. Stock, a case from the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involving an alleged threat posted to Craigslist. Adrian Peter Stock didn’t argue that his posting was protected by the First Amendment; rather, he said that the statement wasn’t criminal in any case because it didn’t express any intention to inflict injury. As a result, he argued, the statement couldn’t possibly be unprotected criminal speech. The Pittsburgh-area federal district court denied Stock’s motion to dismiss, ruling that a reasonable jury could interpret the statement as a threat. The Third Circuit agreed after a lengthy analysis.

Stock was indicted in 2011 for making a Craigslist posting saying:

i went home loaded in my truck and spend the past 3 hours looking for this douche with the expressed intent of crushing him in that little piece of shit under cover gray impala hooking up my tow chains and dragging his stupid ass down to creek hills and just drowning him in the falls. but alas i can’t fine that bastard anywhere . . . i really wish he would die, just like the rest of these stupid fucking asshole cops. so J.K.P. if you read this i hope you burn in hell. i only wish i could have been the one to send you there.

He moved to dismiss the indictment for failure to state an offense. The district court denied the motion after a hearing, and Stock then agreed to a plea deal giving him one year and one day in prison, but that preserved his right to pursue this appeal.

The Third Circuit started by agreeing with the district court that an analysis of how the threat statute treats time is necessary. That is, must a “threat” specifically communicate intent to injure now or in the future? The district court concluded that it must, and the Third Circuit ultimately agreed, relying on past statutory language and the term’s ordinary meaning. But the appeals court went on to also agree that a reasonable jury could conclude that Stock’s statement was a threat in the prospective sense. A reasonable person could believe that Stock had actually engaged in the past conduct he described in the posting (driving around looking for an alleged police officer). But this could also be circumstantial evidence of intent to commit future injury, the court said. Furthermore, it found the expressions of resignation near the end did not necessarily communicate that Stock had given up the job, particularly since his posting clearly still wished the officer ill. Thus, the Third found that a reasonable jury could convict Stock.

Laws that criminalize threats run the risk of violating the First Amendment. Stock expressly decided not to rely on the Constitution in his appeal, but I believe the issue is important for anyone charged with a crime for making threats or other speech-related conduct, such as cyberstalking. Every American citizen and resident has the right to clear laws, so we can understand what conduct is illegal before we’re dragged into court. Criminalizing online speech runs the risk of violating that right, particularly when the speech lacks the specificity of a “threat” as ordinary people understand that term. Unfortunately, because Stock ultimately agreed to a plea bargain, it’s not clear whether a reasonable jury really would have agreed.

The experienced cyber crime attorneys at Seltzer Law, P.A., handle any type of crime involving technology or the Internet. If you’re facing charges, don’t wait to contact us for a free, confidential consultation. You can send us an email or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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