A Washington man who posted Facebook comments threatening a former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer will avoid prison but has been ordered to stay off social media sites in a case that is part of a broader legal debate about when social media rants go beyond hyperbole and become a crime.
A judge handed down Jaleel Abdul-Jabbaar's sentence Thursday, saying it was one of the hardest he has had to decide.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik noted that in a separate case — the recent shooting deaths of two New York officers — the gunman had threatened online to kill police.
But Lasnik accepted the defense argument that Abdul-Jabbaar's comments were simply a strong reaction to the unfolding events in Ferguson, and he had no intention of following through on his threat to shoot Darren Wilson.
The judge ordered Abdul-Jabbaar to spend three years on supervised release. But he said the two months Abdul-Jabbaar already spent in jail was enough time behind bars.
Adbul-Jabbaar pleaded guilty Feb. 2 for posting a threat against Wilson on Facebook that included a call to “give back those bullets that Police Officer Darren Wilson fired into the body of Mike Brown.”
Federal prosecutors said Abdul-Jabbaar posted inflammatory messages for months after the Aug. 9 killing of Brown sparked protests nationwide.
The federal charge of making an interstate threat carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But prosecutors recommended that Abdul-Jabbaar be sentenced to time served and three years of supervised release because he cooperated with state prosecutors in an unrelated shooting case. The plea deal included dismissal of charges for his other threatening messages.
The popularity of social media sites like Facebook and its users' willingness to speak their minds have landed people in jail and left lawyers arguing over what constitutes a “true threat” — one not protected by the First Amendment — and what is simply an exercise of First Amendment free speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in December on another Facebook threat case that legal experts say could answer some of those questions.
When Anthony Elonis' wife left him, he vented on his Facebook page by posting violent threats against her in the form of rap lyrics. The justices are considering whether an “objective” standard should be used in these cases, meaning an average person would believe the writer intended to harm someone, or whether the threat was “subjective,” meaning he was just venting and didn't intend to hurt anyone.
“Facebook 'threats' may be different because the person is not 'sending them' to the intended target; indeed, the target may find out from someone else,” said Loyola Law School Professor Marcy Strauss. “It also may depend on whether the 'threat' is written on the 'victim's' wall, or whether it is posted on the speaker's.
“Whether that is important may turn on the standard the Supreme Court adopts.”
Another Seattle man, Mark Brian Verhul, was sentenced last year to four years in prison for posting on Facebook a photograph and message that said “This is the cop I am going to kill.” The officer pictured had arrested Verhul and he was angry about it.
A Massachusetts man was arrested for posting “Put Wings On Pigs” on his Facebook page in December, which was a repeat of the final remarks of the shooter who killed two New York police officers.
Strauss said she believes the number of criminal cases involving social media threats are increasing “because monitoring of Facebook by government entities and by others attuned to suspicious posts is growing.”