Text messaging is now the preferred of communication for most people in the world today.
In America, federal laws have scrambled to keep pace with this rapid progression in daily communications.
Text messaging has changed the landscape in federal investigations and prosecutions of criminal activities. For example text messages can be used to time stamp evidence. Sometimes, they can even act as confessions.
We can turn to recent news for an example.
A resident of Las Cruces, NM faces federal charges for texts that he sent to recipients across state lines. His messages contained threats, which invoked a unique text-oriented federal charge: transmitting in interstate commerce communications containing any threat to injure another person.
Thi case one has become big news because one of those threatened people happened to be President Biden.
Read on to learn the details of this story and interstate communication law.
What Exactly Is the Defendant Accused of Doing?
The defendant allegedly sent threatening messages to four victims.
The prosecution has chosen to focus on victims two and three. Their names remain concealed, but lawyers identified them as an estranged family member and a former romantic partner. The former partner has a child with the defendant.
The texts contained the phrases “I’m going to execute you for Treason as well,” “You should be scared,” and “I’m going to kill you for standing in my way.”
Why the talk of treason?
Because the defendant’s original rant contained a threat aimed at President Joe Biden – although he did not, in fact, text the president this directly. He also discussed attacking a Canadian quantum computing company called D-Wave Systems.
Federal Reactions to the Texts
Initially, FBI special agents just brought the defendant in for questioning. They noted that he lacked both a vehicle and a gun, which made his threats seem somewhat unlikely to be carried out.
However, the defendant reiterated his warnings, this time directing similar threats at his interrogators. He said that he would execute both agents.
Later, in a hearing, the defendant supported his previous statements. He added that he wanted to execute the FBI agents “for treason.” His defense lawyer asked him to refrain from making statements during the hearing.
Defense and Prosecution
The public defender argued that his client’s threats contained two sticking points:
He cited “treason” as the motivation for “execution,” implying that due process for treason might be followed.
The text messages could have been misperceived as serious when they weren’t.
In response, the hearing judge asserted that any reasonable person would feel threatened by the statements.
The judge ruled to let the case move forward. However, cases for the threats against D-Wave Systems and Joe Biden will not be pursued.
Understanding Federal Law Regarding Interstate Communications
So, why does federal law cover this case of intimidating text messages?
The offenses rose from state to federal level because they crossed state lines and contained threats of assault. As mentioned above, this makes the case fall under federal codes for interstate communications.
The code criminalizes acts using interstate communications to:
- Elicit a ransom or reward for a kidnapped person.
- Extort money from an individual, corporation, firm, or association.
- Threaten bodily injury of another person.
- Threaten abduction of another person.
- Threaten injury of property or reputation (i.e. blackmail).
As you can see, the Las Cruces man clearly threatened bodily injury. Since he talked about shooting multiple people in multiple locations, his statements could even be read as plotting a mass shooting.
Federal Penalties for Interstate Communication Crimes
If a person uses text messages to perform any of the criminal acts listed above, they can expect to face these corresponding consequences if convicted in federal court:
- Eliciting ransom – fines and/or up to 20 years prison time
- Extortion – fines and/or up to 20 years in prison
- Threats of bodily injury – fines and/or five years maximum prison time
- Blackmail – fines and/or up to two years in prison
Defenses against Interstate Communication Crime Charges
Is it possible to construct a defense for interstate communication crimes?
Yes, but these cases can be quite difficult to defend. The prosecution doesn’t even need to rely on eye-witness testimony to capture threatening words. They’re recorded in the digital space and often backed up — even if a phone gets wiped.
Usually, the only defense left to argue is intent, as the public defender tried to accomplish in this news story.
Defense attorneys may present the context of their client’s position at the time the messages were sent. They may paint a picture to interpret the client’s tone or meaning differently. An outlier defense choice may be to plead insanity. Sometimes it can work.
In cases where differing intent is hard to prove, the lawyer might instead negotiate for a lighter sentence. Only time will tell what ultimately happens in this case.