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Feinstein Bill Helps Protect Abuse Victims From Online Threats

February 22, 2016

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) applauds the leadership and commitment of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and her co-sponsors Senator Durbin (D-IL), Senator Whitehouse (D-RI), and Senator Klobuchar (D-MN), in the introduction of S. 2552, a bill to amend the federal threats statute to include an intent requirement. This amendment was made necessary by the June 1, 2015 Supreme Court decision in Elonis v. The United States.

Anthony Elonis was convicted after threatening his former wife on Facebook. One of his posts, after his wife received a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order, said, “Fold up your PFA and put in your pocket, is it thick enough to stop a bullet.” Elonis also wrote that he was going to blow up the state police and sheriff’s department, and said that he will make a name for himself by “the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.” Because of these online statements, he was charged with and convicted of violating a federal law that makes it a crime to use interstate communications to issue threats.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Elonis argued that he could not be convicted for making threats to commit domestic violence, without proof that he specifically intended to threaten. The Court decided that when there is no stated intent requirement in a law, general principles of criminal guilt require that some measure of a culpable mental state (known as mens rea) be demonstrated, but the Court did not decide the necessary level of intent.

“Because of the Elonis decision, the ambiguity surrounding the mens rea required by the federal threats statute could allow abusers to threaten without consequences,” said Kim Gandy, President and CEO of NNEDV, “and we know threats play a central role in domestic abuse.”

NNEDV has been working closely with a coalition of groups advocating for legislation to add an explicit intent requirement to the federal threats statute, to eliminate the ambiguity. Senator Feinstein’s new bill does this, meting out prison time and/or fines for a person transmitting any communication containing a threat to kidnap or injure a person, where the transmitter “intended, had knowledge, or recklessly disregarded the risk, that the communication would be reasonably interpreted as a threat.”

“Feinstein’s revision will provide more clarity for prosecutors and courts in cases involving these types of criminal threats, and will increase the likelihood that domestic abusers who employ these threats can be brought to justice,” said Gandy.