New issues regarding social media sites crop up on almost a daily basis. One of the problem areas that has been in the news lately concerns threats made utilizing Facebook and similar sites. This can be prosecuted as a federal crime, known informally as interstate “cyber stalking.” It concerns transmissions in interstate commerce, and pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), includes any communication containing a threat to injure another person. The potential sentence is five years in prison, a fine, or both.
An example was recently reported involving an Imperial Beach man suspected of violating the statute. The man, James Wheeler, is accused of making a number of threats over a period of months against his wife, who resides in Georgia. The threats allegedly included internet threats on Facebook, as well as threats via telephone. The report claims that Wheeler was confronted with the allegations this past August by agents of the FBI and a deputy at the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. They say Wheeler admitted to the Facebook postings, and was told to stop. Police claim that the conduct nevertheless continued, resulting in the issuance of an arrest warrant.
A few notable items relating to the statute:
- First, it is true that there are a lot of negative things blamed on Facebook and similar sites. But the fact is that the threats in this case could have been communicated by telephone (such threats are alleged in this case), via email, beepers, or any other internet communication. Facebook provided a platform for the alleged threats, but there were many potential mechanisms available to transmit the information in question.
- Second, unlike the California criminal threat statute (PC422), the federal law does not require specific intent on the part of the suspect; rather, all that is required under federal law is the communication of a threat in interstate commerce. This aspect of the federal law is significant, since certain defenses that might be available if it were a state prosecution will not be available in federal court.
- Third, the while a violation of PC422 can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony, the penalty under federal law will generally be more severe. A federal prosecution requires, however, the transmission of the threat in interstate commerce.
Before we leave the subject, note that there are additional federal laws that prohibit cyber stalking, including 47 U.S.C. § 223. That law covers threats and harassment, although the penalties are less severe.
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