The U.S. Attorney’s Office in West Virginia is charging an 18-year-old man with a federal crime based on alleged threats to police officers that he posted on Snapchat, where he posted that he wanted to shoot officers who gave him a citation for a marijuana offense. Prosecutors are charging him with interstate communications containing a threat to injure the person of another under 18 U.S.C. 875(c), which carries up to five years in prison.
The young man was arrested the day after his graduation after classmate recorded the defendant’s snapchat video and showed it to his parents. In the video, the defendant allegedly complained about local police issuing him citations for marijuana-related offenses and allegedly stated that he would shoot the officers through the neck if he saw any of them. Notably, it appears the defendant did not specifically identify any police officers.
This prosecution comes against the backdrop of continuing protests against police brutality across the U.S. In recent weeks, the federal government and local and state governments have taken an increasingly aggressive posture in arresting and charging prosecutors with serious crimes. This prosecution also raises vital First Amendment issues, whether the defendant intended to actually threaten anyone or whether the video was merely bravado and an expression of the defendant’s opinion. We may also see additional prosecutions like this one, given rhetoric online from people angry at the police. Can a person be prosecuted for tweeting, “Death to all cops?”
At its core, this prosecution is a clear signal that the federal government is targeting not only rowdy protestors, but those on social media who aggressively criticize police.