How Facebook threats against Trump can turn into a felony

Threatening a president or president-elect can result in a five-year prison sentence. As people continue to make such threats on social media, other users have decried and shared their remarks, resulting in criminal investigations. 

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in New York in November. After Mr. Trump won the election, a man in Del Mar, Calif., threatened his life in a Facebook post.

A man who says his Facebook post stating he wanted to kill Donald Trump was made in jest could potentially face up to five years in prison for threatening the life of the president-elect.

"I'm going to kill the President Elect," Matt Harrigan, the then-chief executive of PacketSled, a cybersecurity start-up based in Del Mar, Calif., wrote on Facebook. "Bring it secret service."

Later on, responding to a friend's comment, he added, "Getting a sniper rifle and perching myself where it counts. Find a bedroom in the whitehouse [sic] that suits you ... I'll find you."

While Mr. Harrigan contends that his claims weren't serious, and were made privately on his Facebook page to friends he believed would understand that, they spread widely, raising concerns that likely wouldn't have come up before the digital age. Screenshots captured the words and allowed others to repost them on Twitter and Reddit, causing Harrigan to receive harsh criticism, including death threats, and later, a visit from investigators.

In a divisive election cycle, a barrage of offensive posts about both candidates, including racial remarks about the current first family, have surfaced on Facebook, even some shared by elected officials. While such remarks often result in the resignation or termination of those who made them, as they did in Harrigan's case, according to The Washington Post, bringing a criminal case against those who actually threaten the president is a bit trickier.

Threatening the life of a sitting president or president-elect is a felony that can result in five years behind bars or up to $250,000 in fines. Still, such threats aren't uncommon. 

Just a day before the election, a man in Oregon named John Martin Roos pleaded guilty to making threats to Mr. Obama's life on Facebook and Twitter. While such comments must be investigated with respect to an individual's right to free speech, those that show someone may have actually intended to carry out the threats can face prison time.

While Mr. Roos said he uses social media to "blow off steam," he admitted that he would "punch Obama in the nose" if he had the chance. Authorities found rifles, hundreds of rounds and ammunition, and firebombs in his home, prompting them to charge him.

An investigation earlier this year into threats from an inmate held in Bridgewater, Mass., yielded similar findings. After he told a fellow inmate, who was working as a cooperating witness with authorities, that he intended to kill Obama, authorities gathered sufficient evidence from his cell to believe the threats had merit.

Harrigan, whose family has received threats of their own since his post went viral, maintains that his threats against the president-elect weren't serious. He was questioned by two agents who searched his home Monday, but no charges have been brought against him.

"What I do know is that I'm deeply regretful for having made any commentary on the president-elect at all," Harrigan told The Washington Post. "I certainly don't want to harm him and I hope he does a great job."

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