Threatening the President or Other Government Officials
On March 21, 2010, a young man in Arlington, Texas posted a rant threatening the life of President Barack Obama on the popular online classifieds site Craigslist. The post, which expressed anger over passage of the Affordable Care Act, stated the following: "It is time for Obama to die. I am dedicating my life to the death of Obama and every employee of the federal government." The Secret Service tracked the incendiary comments to Brian Dean Miller, who was living with his mother at the time, and arrested him for the crime of threatening the President.
As with most other constitutionally guaranteed liberties, the First Amendment right to free speech has its limits. Miller, whose speech most certainly crossed the line, pleaded guilty in a Dallas federal court and was sentenced to 27 months in prison without parole.
In this article, we explore the federal felony offense of threatening the President of the United States or other government officials, a serious crime against the government.
Threatening the President and Other Officials: U.S. Code Basics
The statute criminalizing threats against the President and other federal officials can be found in Chapter 41 of the U.S. Code. This chapter covers several different types of threat-related offenses involving federal government officials, plus related offenses such as blackmail, extortion, and receiving kickbacks from public works employees.
For the scope of this article, we will focus on threats against the President, the Vice President, and other government officials, including:
- President-elect and Vice President-elect;
- Any officer next in the order of succession to the President or Vice President;
- Member of the immediate family of the President/Vice President or President-elect/Vice President-elect;
- Any former President/Vice President or a member of the immediate family of a former President/Vice President;
- A major candidate for the office of President or Vice President, or any of their immediate family members;
- Anyone protected by the Secret Service; or
- Any internationally protected person outside the United States who is a representative, officer, employee, or agent of the United States and a U.S. national.
For a violation of Chapter 41 to occur, a threat must be made to either kill, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm upon the President or other individuals protected by this statute.
What is a 'Credible' Threat?
According to the law, the threat must be made "knowingly and willfully" and must take the larger context of the statement into consideration. If such a threat is uttered as a political argument or made simply in jest, it typically won't rise to the level of "credible threat." Regardless, defendants may not defend against such charges by stating that the threat was accompanied by religious or political statements.
For example, if a comedian makes a joke about killing the president, it probably wouldn't violate the law, even if it lacks good taste (although a comedian is still capable of making a credible threat). In fact, legendary comedian Groucho Marx was quoted in 1971 as saying "I think the only hope this country has is Nixon's assassination." It may have been an irresponsible comment, but one protected as free speech.
Essentially, the jury is tasked with determining whether a statement is a credible threat against the President, Vice President, or other government official covered by this statute. First Amendment protections make this determination necessarily nuanced and fact-based. Did the defendant mean their words to be taken as a threat, and would a reasonable person regard them as such? What tone was used when the statement was made, and what were the reactions of the listeners or audience?
Miller, the man who threatened President Obama in 2010, reportedly admitted that he wrote the threatening words and reiterated his threat when initially confronted by federal agents. Since he pleaded guilty, the decision of whether his threat was credible wasn't in the hands of a jury.
Penalties for Threatening the President
Anyone who is found guilty of making a credible threat of death, kidnapping, or bodily harm against the President, Vice President, or other individuals covered by this statute faces up to five years in prison and/or up to $250,000 in fines. In addition, anyone convicted of this crime may be sentenced to three years of supervised release but also may have internet access restrictions imposed upon release.
Threats against foreign officials, official guests, or internationally protected individuals also are covered by this statute and carry the same penalties, although threats of assault (rather than murder or kidnapping) are punished by a maximum of three years in prison.
Make Sure You're Prepared for Your Criminal Case: Call an Attorney Today
Ever since the internet made everyone within reach of a keyword a published author, the opportunity to threaten the President has increased exponentially. Even if you didn't actually mean it, a threat that seems credible could land you in federal prison. If you've been charged with threatening the president or other government officials, or face other federal charges, you'll want to speak with a criminal defense attorney right away.