In State v. D.R.C., the WA Court of Appeals held that a 17-year-old girl’s text messages to friends which aired her grievances about her mother after they verbally argued did not constitute “true threats” for purposes of proving Harassment.
The case against 17-year-old juvenile defendant D.R.C. began with a mother-daughter dispute over whether D.R.C. violated house rules by possessing gang-colored clothing. The argument took place in D.R.C.’s bedroom, and at some point D.R.C. slammed her door shut. D.R.C.’s mother responded by removing the door from its hinges.
During the argument with her mother, D.R.C. was on her phone and texting with several friends, indicating she wanted to kill her mother. The texts were vaguely worded and peppered with smiling emojis and the initialism “LOL.”
After removing D.R.C.’s bedroom door, the mother confiscated D.R.C.’s phone and turned to leave the room. As she was leaving, D.R.C.’s mother heard a loud noise. D.R.C. had punched her bedroom wall, leaving a hole in it. D.R.C.’s mother called the police. The police arrived and talked to D.R.C. and her mother, but did not take further action. Later that night, D.R.C.’s mother reviewed D.R.C.’s phone and discovered the text messages.
D.R.C.’s mother shared the text messages with the police. The State charged D.R.C. with felony harassment in juvenile court. The case proceeded to trial. The juvenile court found D.R.C. guilty of harassment.
D.R.C. appealed under arguments that the State failed to meet the additional burden of proving a true threat.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals reasoned that in order to penalize a defendant for harassment, the State must prove not only the elements of the offense but also that the defendant’s words were not the type of speech protected by the First Amendment.
“A true threat is a serious threat,” said the Court. “It is not an idle statement, a joke, or even a hyperbolic expression of frustration.” The court further reasoned that when analyzing whether a statement is a “true threat” it looks carefully at the context of the inflammatory statement in order to avoid infringement on the precious right to free speech.
“The focus of the true threat analysis is on the speaker. But we do not look at the speaker’s actual intent . . . Instead, the test is objective . . . We ask whether a reasonable person in the speaker’s position would foresee their statement would be interpreted as a serious expression of intent to cause physical harm.” ~WA Court of Appeals
Next, the Court of Appeals examined whether D.R.C.’s friends thought the threats were “true threats.” It reasoned that D.R.C.’s past conversation with one friend supports D.R.C.’s testimony that she tended to use hyperbolic language with her friends. “In the prior text between D.R.C. and Lexy, D.R.C. accompanied her statements about harming or killing a mutual acquaintance with ”Lmfao”; the face with tears of joy emoji, ; a shrug emoji, ; a smiling face with horns emoji, ; a zany face emoji, ; and a heart emoji,” said the Court of Appeals. “The combination of the initialism and emojis conveyed an unmistakable message of sarcasm, as opposed to a serious intent to cause harm or death.”
“The language used by D.R.C. was distastefully violent, but it was not as disturbing as some of the past statements held to fall within First Amendment protections.” ~WA Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals reversed D.R.C.’s conviction – but not without warning:
“While we rule in D.R.C.’s favor, our disposition should not be interpreted as approval of D.R.C.’s choice of language . . . We, like the trial court, find nothing funny in the texts. Nevertheless, the First Amendment protects all sorts of speech, even when the sentiment is hurtful or vile.” ~WA Court of Appeals
My opinion? I’ve gained jury acquittals in similar cases. In proving harassment charges, the State must prove that a reasonable person would have felt the threats were true threats under the circumstances. That’s a high burden to prove. Many people – indeed, most people – are guilty of making threats during or after an emotional situation. However, simply uttering threats does not logically mean that the threat is intended to be carried out out.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with Harassment. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney like myself is the first and best step towards justice.