MINNEAPOLIS – Are threats made over social media less serious than those communicated by old-school means?
That was one of the questions before the Minnesota Supreme Court earlier this month as the justices weighed the state’s appeal of a downward departure in the sentence given to a former high school football star over a barrage of threatening tweets he directed at the St. Paul Police Federation.
In the view of Assistant Dakota County Attorney Kathryn Keena, the notion that a threat-by-tweet is somehow less egregious is “the most concerning” issue raised by the case.
“Just look in the last five to 10 years. Our world has changed and social media is, commonly, where crimes are committed,” said Keena, who then ticked off a range of criminal offenses — from child solicitation to revenge porn to theft by swindle — that increasingly happen online.
“So I don’t think it makes it less serious,” Keena added. “Frankly, I think it makes it more serious.”
Defense attorney Steven Grimshaw agreed with Keena that the world has indeed been transformed by the internet social media. But Grimshaw urged the justices to consider the effects of the internet — and the “ranting machine” that is Twitter — on young people.
“He has lived his entire life exposed to the internet,” Grimshaw said of his client, Harrison Rund. “What he sees at the age of 3, you and I didn’t see until were 15. It is a completely different world these young people are exposed to.”
Rund’s legal troubles began a little over three years ago when he ticketed for driving 68 miles per hour in a 60 mph zone. Irate, the then-19-year-old returned to his South St. Paul home, where had a few drinks and — to his subsequent regret — took to Twitter to vent.
Over a succession of five wee-hour tweets, Rund stated variously that he was “literally thinking about startin to hunt and kill cops,” that he was “gonna kill 5 police officers today,” and “they don’t call me the cop killer for nothing.”
The tweet storm quickly came to the attention of police — not a surprise, given that Rund included the hashtag for the St. Paul Police Federation in his posts. By the end of the day, Rund had confessed to the ill-advised outburst. Despite his apologies and assurances that police had nothing to fear from him, he was charged with felony terroristic threats.
At a change of plea hearing, Dakota County District Court Judge Timothy McManus scolded the former South St. Paul High School star quarterback over his courtroom appearance and ordered that he have “no contact with rap music.” (The rationale for the condition: One of the offending tweets — “Throw a grenade in the room, watch all the coppers ka-boom” — was derived from a lyric).
A month later, McManus sentenced Rund to 120 days in jail, which was twice the jail time sought by the prosecutor.
But the judge also gave Rund a break.
Under the sentencing guidelines, Rund’s terroristic threats conviction called for a stayed prison sentence of one year and a day. That was only one day more than the sentence McManus handed down (365 days, with 245 days stayed).
But the one-day departure meant Rund would not be saddled with a felony conviction. That was in “the best interests of society,” McManus explained at the time, because “we’ve got too many people on probation for felonies already.”
In justifying the downward departure, the judge pointed to Rund’s youth, his expressions of remorse, his efforts to “turn (his life) around,” and a lack of intent to carry out an attack.
But the non-felony disposition elicited an immediate objection from Assistant Dakota County Attorney Jennifer Bovitz. “Think of the message this court will be sending if you see this offense is mitigated because it was committed using social media,” she complained at the time.
At the Court of Appeals, the state’s arguments hinged on the view that McManus had abused his discretion by relying on offender-based factors – rather than the required offense-based factors – as reasons for the departure.
In August, a divided Court of Appeals concluded that the sentence was a proper exercise of judicial discretion, saying that Rund’s tweets “demonstrated only recklessness and not a specific intent to terrorize.”
At the Supreme Court oral argument, several justices expressed pointed skepticism that McManus had made sufficient findings to justify the sentence.
“If you look at the actual departure report, it looks like the District Court judge checked off the boxes that are related to the individual offender, rather than the boxes that are related to the offense,” Justice Anne McKeig noted. “What to do we do with that? Because that seems contrary to the law.”
Grimshaw acknowledged that judge “did not fill out the form accurately.” But he also urged the court to look beyond the report and consider the record in its entirety. “I think at the end of the day he (McManus) put enough on the record to justify a downward departure,” said Grimshaw.
Grimshaw also said that McManus was in the best position to consider where the Rund’s tweets fell in the “wide spectrum of behavior” that is covered by the terroristic threats statute.
There is a big difference, he said, between someone who makes a threat to deliberately induce terror and “someone who is on Twitter in trash-talking mode with a friend who did not intend to cause fear and certainly was not going to cause a threat.”
Justice Margaret Chutich responded that distinction would matter more had Rund only been trash talking with a friend. But by including the St. Paul Police Federation hashtag with his tweets, Chutich said, Rund had ensured that the police would become aware of his “scary threats.”
“That’s why we pleaded guilty,” Grimshaw responded.
Justice Natalie Hudson, meanwhile, suggested that there simply was not enough available evidence for the court to know whether the departure was justified.
“What’s troubling to me on this record is that neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals made any sort of case comparison,” Hudson said. “You have to do that, it seems to me. There are tons of terroristic threats cases out there.”