Threatening the government officials of the United States
|Part of the common law series|
|Element (criminal law)|
|Scope of criminal liability|
|Seriousness of offense|
|Offence against the person|
|Crimes against property|
|Crimes against justice|
|Defences to liability|
|Other common law areas|
Threatening the government officials of the United States is a serious crime under federal law. Threatening the President of the United States is a Class D felony under 18 U.S.C. § 871, punishable by 5 years of imprisonment, that is investigated by the United States Secret Service. Threatening other officials is a Class C or D felony, usually carrying maximum penalties of 5 or 10 years under 18 U.S.C. § 875, 18 U.S.C. § 876 and other statutes, that is investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. When national boundaries are transcended by such a threat, it is considered a terrorist threat. When a threat is made against a judge, it can be considered obstruction of justice. Threatening federal officials' family members is also a federal crime; in enacting the law, the Committee on the Judiciary stated that "Clearly it is a proper Federal function to respond to terrorists and other criminals who seek to influence the making of Federal policies and interfere with the administration of justice by attacking close relatives of those entrusted with these tasks."
There are three elements of the offense of making an illegal threat: (i) there must be a transmission in interstate commerce; (ii) there must be a communication containing the threat; (iii) and the threat must be a threat to injure the person of another. Threats can also sometimes be punished under the statutes criminalizing assaulting, resisting, or impeding certain United States Government officers or employees or assassinating, kidnapping, and assaulting the government officials of the United States.
United States Sentencing Guidelines take a number of factors into consideration in determining the recommended penalty, including evidence of the person's intent to carry out the threat; disruption to the government function; and the possibility of inciting others to violence. There is also a 6-level official victim enhancement, which makes the recommended penalty, per the sentencing table, approximately double that which would apply if an ordinary citizen were the victim. There can be many motives for making threats, including political motives or a desire to frame someone else for making the threat. The person's intent can greatly affect the sentence.
In determining what constitutes a true threat, the courts hold that what must be proved is that a reasonable recipient of the communication would consider it a threat under the circumstances. Thus, a statement to a judge that "You and your family are going to die" would be regarded as a true threat, even if the defendant claimed that he meant it as a literal, biological truth. If a threat is made to multiple individuals, it may be considered to be outside of the guidelines heartland, and therefore to warrant an enhancement.
The Secret Service prefers not to publicize incidents of Presidential assassination threats, because it believes that it will generate more criminal behavior, especially among the mentally ill. Reports have circulated that Barack Obama receives four times as many threats as his predecessor, a claim that Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan denies. Historically, prosecutions for Presidential assassination threats have risen during periods of national crisis, such as the World Wars and the Vietnam War era. New communication technologies such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have become vectors for investigated alleged threats against the President.
The worst actual violence against Congressmen occurred in 1954 when four Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the House chamber, wounding five members. Threats and intimidation directed against Congress are far more common. For example, a cross was burned on House Speaker Sam Rayburn's front lawn in Texas during debate on civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The Capital Police investigates threats against congressmen and reports to Bob Brady, Chairman of the Committee on House Administration. Some threats have been made through YouTube videos.
In the wake of 2010 legislation for health care reform in the United States, lawmakers were the recipients of a sharply increased number of threatening communications and actions. More than 10 Democrats and Republican Jean Schmidt received threatening messages. Eric Cantor, who received a bullet through his campaign office window, stated, "Security threats against members of Congress are not a partisan issue, and they should never be treated that way. To use such threats as political weapons is reprehensible." He accused Rep. Chris Van Hollen of "dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon." Cantor himself received a threat from Norman Leboon, a donor to Barack Obama who had produced more than 2,000 threatening YouTube videos; the Democratic Party said that it would donate the funds to charity.
House Minority Leader John Boehner stated, "Violence and threats are unacceptable. Yes, I know there is anger, but let's take that anger, and go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign,and let's do it the right way." Other lawmakers' windows were broken with bricks and other objects. A spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center remarked, "I think it is astounding that we are seeing this wave of vigilantism." There were also complaints about former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's calling on conservatives to "reload" and using an image of crosshairs on a map posted on Facebook identifying 20 vulnerable Democrats who voted for health care legislation: Palin clarified, "When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our vote," but one congresswoman in Palin's crosshairs, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and critically wounded in Tucson, Arizona. The shooting was later determined to be unrelated to Palin's post.
Self-described Tea Party movement member Catherine Crabill unsuccessfully contended for the Republican nomination in the Virginia's 1st congressional district election, 2010. Crabill's candidacy had been controversial due to her statements that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended to help citizens protect themselves from tyranny and that citizens may have to turn from the ballot box to the bullet box. In 2009, Wittman and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell refused to endorse her for Virginia House of Delegates. McDonnell spokesman Tucket Martin stated, "It's absolutely wrong for any candidate of any party to refer to the actions of the President of the United States and members of the United States Congress as 'domestic terrorism,' and to threaten to resort to violence if one fails to prevail in elections." Crabill refused to retract her remarks, saying "Those are my convictions."
In a similar incident, Sharron Angle said, "You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said, it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, 'My goodness what can we do to turn this country around? And I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out." She later explained that she was referring to taking him out of office in the 2010 election. In response, a Harry Reid campaign spokesman said, "It wasn't a gaffe, it is a philosophy. She has repeated that language many times." It is not clear what nonviolent Second Amendment remedies Angle might have been referring to, given other remarks she made that the Second Amendment's purpose is "to defend ourselves. And you know, I'm hoping that we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems."
Judges and prosecutors
Threats against federal judges can include threats of vigilantism. For instance, in 2004, gun-rights activist, Denver businessman and former Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate Rick Stanley was sentenced to six years of imprisonment for sending two judges, Thornton Municipal Judge Charles J. Rose and 17th Judicial District Judge Donald W. Marshall, Jr., a "notice of order" demanding that they reverse his conviction for a weapons violation or face arrest by Stanley's Mutual Defense Pact Militia and a trial for treason. Stanley was also ordered to pay $8,250 restitution to police who worked overtime to protect the judges.
Threats against federal judges and prosecutors have more than doubled in recent years, with threats against federal prosecutors rising from 116 to 250 from 2003 to 2008, and threats against federal judges climbing from 500 to 1,278 in that same period,  prompting hundreds to get 24-hour protection from armed U.S. marshals. The problem has become so pronounced that a threat management center has been opened in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia, where a staff of about 25 marshals and analysts monitor a 24-hour number for reporting threats, use sophisticated mapping software to track those being threatened and tap into a classified database linked to the FBI and CIA. In 2009, a radio host was indicted for, after criticizing three appellate judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit who affirmed a lower court decision to dismiss challenges to Chicago's handgun ban as "cunning, ruthless, untrustworthy, disloyal, unpatriotic, deceitful scum", allegedly saying, "Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges deserve to be killed." He also allegedly posted blog entries providing a photo and a map of the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, where the court is located, with arrows pointing to "anti-truck bomb barriers." That case resulted in two hung juries. The sending of white powder as part of a threatening communication has become not uncommon since the 2001 anthrax attacks.
The making of these threats coincided with high-profile violence against federal officials in that same period, including Baltimore Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna, who was stabbed 36 times with his own penknife and drowned in a creek, and Thomas C. Wales, an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle gunned down at his home. Such incidents lead U.S. officials to take threats seriously. However, actual attacks on government officials are still rare in the U.S. relative to many countries with more unstable governments (e.g. so-called "banana republics" that frequently experience coups and assassinations) as evidenced by the fact that the most famous judge to be assassinated in recent times was John H. Wood, Jr. back in 1979.
Case law records that many threats are made from prisoners dissatisfied with the handling of their own case or fellow inmates', or wanting to serve time in the federal system. Often the penalties for making the threat are more serious than those imposed for the original offense. Threats by inmates are taken seriously if the person has contacts on the outside who are capable of carrying out the threat. Federal officials attribute the rising threat rate to disgruntled defendants, terrorism and gang cases that bring more violent offenders into federal courts, frustration over the economic crisis and the rise of the "sovereign citizen" movement – a loose collection of tax protesters, white supremacists and others who don't respect federal authority.
Other civil servants
The Internal Revenue Service is frequently a target of threats. Examples include the case of U.S. v. Darby, in which the defendant told the IRS he was tired of their bullshit, asked how they would like to have a pipe bomb delivered to their place of employment, and said that he didn't eat his victims like Jeffrey Dahmer but just killed them by blowing them up; David J. D'Addabbo, who sent a petition to IRS workers warning that they would be "tried by a jury and your penalty will be sought for it to be death by firing squad" and told the arresting agents to "watch your back"; and John Barker, who perpetrated an anthrax hoax against the IRS. According to the U.S. Treasury Department's Inspector General for Tax Administration, threats against the IRS have been rising in recent years, and in 2009 rose from 834 to 1,014 per year, an increase of 21.5% over the prior year. There have been incidents of actual violence against the IRS to take place as well, by people ramming cars into IRS offices, setting them on fire, and taking out hits on IRS employees, although the 2010 Austin plane crash was one of the more high-profile incidents. According to a Cato Institute commentator, "this trend is likely to continue until there is a fundamental change in our tax laws and collection methods. People who do not have access to the media and cannot afford expensive tax lawyers sometimes reach such a level of frustration with the IRS that they resort to violent or irrational behavior." There is a special statute, 26 U.S.C. § 7212, that protects IRS employees from threats, which according to the U.S. Attorneys' Manual, "provides a particularly helpful alternative in cases where there is simply an offer of violence unaccompanied by the potential for imminent use of physical force."
Federal law enforcement agencies are often the target of threats. Examples include Jeff Henry Williamson, who threatened to blow up FBI headquarters, CIA headquarters and the Justice Department; and Micha Godfrey, who allegedly emailed medical cannabis websites threats against DEA agents and their families, and a search of whose house subsequently turned up four firearms, a bulletproof vest, and cannabis plants. Government agencies are sometimes the subject of blackmail attempts, as when an informer threatened to falsely accuse the FBI of knowing in advance that the World Trade Center would be bombed and of failing to stop it.
When the FBI receives threats over the Internet, it can use National Security Letters to obtain the real name, street address and Internet logs of the sender, and those who provide the information were forbidden by the PATRIOT Act from revealing the request to anyone, until the Doe v. Ashcroft case overturned that gag rule. According to the federal investigators, political protesters who threaten elected officials or turn violent are easier for law enforcement officials to track due to their vocal and high profile statements on the internet and their association with the Tea Party movement. For instance, Nigel Coleman posted the address of Rep. Tom Perriello online and invited people to "visit" the official at his home. The address was actually Perriello's brother Bo. A severed gas line at the home was discovered one day after the address was made public.
- Disposition Matrix
- Domestic terrorism in the United States
- Threatening the President of the United States
- 18 U.S.C. § 1503
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- United States v. DeAndino, 958 F.2d 146 (US Ct. App. 6th Cir. 1992).
- United States v. Heliczer, 373 F. 2d 241 (Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit 1967).
- U.S.S.G. §2A6.1
- U.S.S.G. §3A1.2
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