Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Elonis STILL guilty for Facebook threats

In US v. Elonis, 12-3798 (10/28/2016), the Third Circuit affirms Elonis’s conviction for Facebook threats -- again.  SCOTUS vacated the Circuit’s original denial of Elonsis’s appeal.  As a matter of statutory interpretation, a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), transmitting a threat to injure another person in interstate commerce, could not be based solely on an objective standard (whether a reasonable person would perceived the words as a true threat).  There must be a mens rea requirement greater than negligence.  SCOTUS refused to state whether a mens rea of recklessness would be sufficient.  However, SCOTUS wrote that the jury should have been instructed that Elonis could be convicted if it found he “transmitted a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat or with knowledge that the communication would be viewed as a threat.”  SCOTUS did NOT reach the First Amendment issues.

On remand, the Third Circuit found that the trial court’s instruction containing the objective standard was harmless error.  Elonis testified at trial that his posts were just rap lyrics or satire; that he never intended for anyone to feel like he was threatening them; and that he didn’t care what other people thought or said about him.  Some of his posts contained statements saying that they were fictional, were not meant to depict real persons, and that he was simply exercising his First Amendment rights.  The government argued at closing that even if the jury believed everything that Elonis said, that they could still convict him because “it doesn’t matter what he thinks.”  However, despite Elonis’s testimony and the government’s closing, the Third Circuit found harmless error because the Government had produced evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant personally knew his communications would be viewed as a threat AND an objective person would view the communications as a threat.

For the conviction based on posts discussing his ex-wife, the Third Circuit pointed out that after a PFA hearing in which the ex-wife cited to Facebook posts as threatening, Elonis continued to post similar lyrics.  For the convictions based on posts discussing state police, elementary schools, and FBI agents, the Third Circuit reasoned that because Elonis knew that posts containing very similar lyrics discussing his former co-workers had made them feel threatened, that he knew these particular posts would make people feel threatened as well.

I cannot imagine that this is the end of this case.  First, while I can understand the affirmance of the conviction involving the threats to his ex-wife, I am puzzled by the affirmance of the other convictions.  There was evidence that the ex-wife felt threatened by the lyrics and Elonis continued to post them even after knowing that his felt threatened (and the lyrics are objectively threatening).  However, there was no such similar evidence that (1) state police, elementary schools in the area, or the FBI felt threatened, (2) that Elonis knew or found out they felt threatened, and (3) that he continued posting threatening lyrics anyway.  Isn't there some need to show that Elonis knew that the particular person or people that are the "victims" would feel threatened?  Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the criminalization of these generalized threats, not directed towards particular individuals, can pass constitutional muster.

Which brings me to the second reason I think we haven’t seen the end of this case.  No opinion directly addresses the First Amendment concerns.  Does SCOTUS's interpretion of the mens rea requirement automatically mean that the statute satisfies the First Amendment?  Some of Elonis's lyrics aren’t that different (although, really of much poorer quality) than the lyrics of some successful rap artists.  One of his posts was almost word for word taken from a stand-up comedy routine, which he referenced in his post.  It is hard to imagine that art (even bad art) and comedy routines are not protected by the First Amendment.  Does it matter that his lyrics were posted on his own Facebook page rather than transmitted to a "victim"?  Does it matter that two of the "victims," the state police and the FBI, can be viewed as public officials?

Is there a rehearing petition coming?  Another cert petition?  I, for one, would really like some First Amendment clarity please!

Interlocutory appeal of disclosure order in grand jury proceedings dismissed for lack of jurisdiction

            The Third Circuit dismissed the appeal in In Re Grand Jury Matter #3, 15-2475 (10/28/2016), for lack of jurisdiction.  In response to a grand jury subpoena, John Doe’s accountant gave the government an email that was written by John Doe’s lawyer and forwarded to the accountant by John Doe. The government wanted to show the email to the grand jury.  John Doe claimed that it was attorney work product and privileged.  District Court ruled that the crime-fraud exception applied and that the government could disclose the email to the grand jury.

            Normally, to file an interlocutory appeal of such a disclosure order, the subpoenaed party would have to refuse the subpoena, get held in contempt, and then file an appeal of the contempt finding.  However, in circumstances, such as here, where the document is not in the possession of the person opposing disclosure, the person opposing disclosure is unable to choose to stand in contempt so that he/she could immediately appeal the disclosure order.  Under these circumstances, sometimes the Perlman doctrine allows the privilege-holder to file an interlocutory appeal.

            In this case, the Third Circuit allowed the appeal to continue and had full briefing and oral argument.  However, sometime after the filing of the appeal, the grand jury was shown the email and they returned an indictment.  Given the indictment, the Third Circuit found that an interlocutory appeal was premature because the issue could be raised after final judgment if there was a conviction in this case.  They dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.  A dissent was filed.

Pro se appeal of non-decision dismissed for lack of jurisdiction


            In Marshall v. Commissioner of PA DOC, et al. 16-9000 (10/25/2016), the Third Circuit dismissed this pro se appeal for lack of jurisdiction.  Marshall is a capital inmate with a pending federal habeas petition who moved to proceed pro se.  After additional motions and a psychiatric evaluation, the District Court held a hearing in which parties addressed whether Marshall was competent and whether he could proceed pro se.  At this hearing the District Court specifically stated that it had not yet decided these issues but that it would do so shortly.

            After the hearing, but prior to the announcement of any decision, Marshall filed a pro se appeal of the District Court’s (then non-existent) denial of his motion to proceed pro se.  After that, the District Court issued an order finding Marshall not competent and denying his motion to proceed pro se.  No parties (not Marshall nor his counsel) filed anything further with the Third Circuit after the District Court’s opinion, even though the Third Circuit invited them to do so.

            The Third Circuit dismissed Marshall’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction.  Even though there are circumstances under F.R.A.P. 4(a)(2) and the Cape May Greene doctrine where the Third Circuit may have jurisdiction over an appeal that was filed before it was ripe, those circumstances did not apply to Marshall’s case.  At the very least, FRAP 4(a)(2) and the Cape May Greene doctrine require that the District Court have at least announced an appealable decision, even if the decision may not have been officially entered or there may be other pending issues preventing the entry of a final appealable order.  Neither of those circumstances applied here as the notice of appeal was filed before any decision was made or announced.  Thus, even though Marshall’s motion to proceed pro se has now been denied, his appeal of the denial of his motion was premature and dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

PS -- Props to all attorneys who continue to act in their client's best interests even when the client is trying to fire you.