“[Not] Every Statement That Causes a Hearer Fear or Painful Memories Is … a Threat”

“[O]ur interpretation of the law of criminal threats must leave some room for speech that is less than perfectly sensitive.” So says the D.C. Court of Appeals (the highest court in D.C. analog to a state court system), reversing a conviction in In re S.W. (D.C. June 7, 2012). Naturally, such generalities don’t by themselves resolve the case, which largely turns on whether a reasonable observer would understand the statement, in context, as a threat. For more on the details, see the opinion. An excerpt:

Appellant, S.W., was adjudicated delinquent after being found guilty of felony threats to damage property, D.C. Code § 22-1810 (2001) formerly D.C. Code § 22-2307 (1981). S.W. appeals, contending that the evidence was insufficient to find him guilty. We agree. The record reflects that the complainant, Cherie Gardner, and S.W. were friends with no history of animosity, much less violence The day before the alleged threat was made Ms. Gardner experienced an upsetting incident when her house caught on fire. But her sensitivity about that scare did not turn words sung by fifteen-year-old S.W., who is not alleged to have had any connection to the fire, into a threat. Specifically, the fact that S.W. paraded back and forth on the sidewalk in front of Ms. Gardner, performing to a laughing audience and singing a modified rap song about setting the block and her house on fire, cannot reasonably be perceived as communicating a threat to damage Ms. Gardner‘s home. Because an essential element of the crime was not proved, we reverse S.W.‘s adjudication of delinquency.

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