This week, it charged the man at the center of an international firestorm over a 14-minute YouTube video with insulting Islam and inciting sectarian strife – charges that are largely for show since Mr. Nakoula, an Egyptian immigrant, lives in California.
Yet what the US government is going to do with Nakoula – if anything – is far less clear. Federal probation officers met with Nakoula Saturday, sparking speculation about whether he could be taken into custody.
Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges and was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. He was released on probation after about a year, but the terms of his probation reportedly bar him from using the Internet or an alias for five years without approval from his probation officer.
Both federal authorities and legal scholars have said the content of the film is protected by constitutional free speech rights. Instead, the lingering question is whether he could be in trouble with his probation officers, since the film was posted on the Internet and Nakoula is alleged to have used the alias "Sam Bacile" to work on it.
“A lot of folks look at probation as slap on wrist, and that’s a misguided view," says Paul Takajian, a retired Los Angeles prosecutor now specializing in criminal law. "Probation really is a sword of Damocles hanging over your head, and if you take a wrong step, you are going to be regretting it.”
"If this man was using a false name to gain access to the Internet, it would certainly appear at first blush that he is in violation and could be taken,” he adds.
Nakoula was released by federal authorities last weekend and is now in hiding with his family. Nakoula told his Coptic Christian bishop that he was not involved with the film, the bishop told Reuters.
But an actress in the film, "Innocence of Muslims," announced Wednesday that she is suing Nakoula for unspecified damages after receiving death threats for her role in the film. She says the movie was shot as an adventure film and the anti-Islamic lines were later dubbed in.
Prominent American anti-Islamic activist Joseph Nassralla also made a statement Wednesday alleging that Nakoula had changed the film's content without his knowledge. Nassralla, the founder of a group called Media for Christ, added that he later found out that Nakoula – using the name Sam Bacile – had used Media for Christ's name without his permission to get an official permit for making the film, according to Reuters.
As for Nakoula's probation status, Internet-use conditions are reasonably common in fraud cases, says Caleb Mason, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.
“There could be a variety of theories under which using false pretenses to get valuable consideration from someone – say, money or services – would constitute fraud, which would be a crime and thus a violation,” he adds.
And legal experts say probation judges are not to be trifled with.
“My view is that judges revoke probation when they're irritated by the probationer, or feel tricked or lied to,” says Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general, criminal appeals division for New Mexico. “No one likes an ingrate, and judges, because of their position, are particularly sensitive to intimations of disrespect.”
He says the US Department of Justice “tends to be highly bureaucratic at the best of times, and I'd have to believe that decisions regarding this case will exclusively be made in Washington, and the legal niceties will be the least of the discussion.”
The Justice Department will want to be deliberate, though, says Jesse Choper, a constitutional scholar at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. “They need to make sure they have a strong case and are not just doing it under political pressure,” he says. “They don’t want to bring him in and then have him released on some technicality.”
In many cases, parole violations can be straightforward.
And if a probationer is taken back into custody?
“The judge can revoke his probation, impose other terms, or send him back to prison and say, 'You won’t have to worry about your mortgage for a couple of years, we’ve got your living quarters covered,' ” says Mr. Takajian.