Massachusetts Court of Appeals Decides a Classroom Death Threat Case
In the years following the 1999 Columbine shootings, the United States has seen approximately 284 mass shootings in schools across the country. Due to this tragic fact, threats of violence in schools are taken very seriously.
In a recent decision by the Massachusetts Court of Appeal in Commonwealth v. Leonardo, the court answered the question of whether a juvenile’s threat to kill his teacher was protected as free speech.
What happened in the Leonardo case?
On Thursday, October 3rd, 2019, the thirteen-year-old juvenile defendant was called to the assistant principal’s office for a meeting that was scheduled as a result of an email that the juvenile’s teacher had sent to the principal the previous day. The teacher had requested an intervention with the juvenile because he was becoming unreachable in class and was defiant and oppositional. When the juvenile was told what the meeting was about, he went off on a tangent and talked about how angry the teacher makes him. As the meeting with the principal progressed, the juvenile became increasingly angry and said that he wanted to “kill that bitch” (referring to his teacher).
This incident was reported to the school resource officer. The SRO examined the juvenile and recalled that the juvenile constantly seemed angry and would clench his fists and breathe heavily during his frequent bouts of anger.
The teacher reported to the SRO that she did not feel safe with the juvenile in her class and that she truly felt as though the juvenile wanted to hurt her. The SRO compiled a report based on the concerns of other teachers and students regarding the juvenile’s behavior. The report noted that the juvenile constantly displayed anger to his teachers and peers. Based on this report, the SRO filed an application for a complaint charging the juvenile with threatening to commit a crime.
What constitutes a threat is defined by various case law, which describes a threat to mean when someone expresses an intention to inflict a crime on another, has the ability to carry out that crime, causes the victim to fear him, and does so in circumstances that make the victim’s fear justifiable.” Whether the threat was made in attending circumstances that would justify apprehension is measured by means of an objective standard.
In analyzing a punitive threat, courts look to the entire context in which the statement is made, including the actions and demeanor at the time, and prior communications between the defendant and the recipient.
In this case, the threat was made at a school meeting concerning the juvenile’s previous actions in class with his teacher, including the teacher’s view that the juvenile hated her and wanted to kill her. The juvenile’s speech, demeanor, and uncontrollable anger all place the threat in context.
Massachusetts courts have held that when a defendant utters a threat to a third party who would likely communicate it to the target, the defendant’s act constitutes evidence of his intent to communicate the threat to the intended victim. In this case, the juvenile knew or should have known that the assistant principal would communicate the threat to the teacher.
The second issue here is whether there is probable cause to believe that the juvenile has the ability to commit the threatened crime. This may be demonstrated by circumstantial evidence. In determining probable cause, it is irrelevant that some of the statements contradict an intent or ability to carry out the threats so long as the context in which the allegedly threatening state was made and all the surrounding circumstances demonstrate an intent or ability to commit a crime that justifiably places the victim in fear.
Here, the teacher expressed apprehension and concern that the juvenile might carry out his threat. However, criminal threats do not require actual fear or apprehension in the victim. Because the threat was made at school to the assistant principal, with the teacher as the juvenile’s target, the context of school violence is a major concern. All of the factors taken together establish the requisite probable cause that the juvenile had threatened to commit a crime.
Finally, the juvenile argued that his speech was protected. He contends that the statements he made were pure speech, protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. On the contrary, true threats are not constitutionally protected speech.
This class of unprotected speech was developed to help distinguish between words that literally threatened but have an excessive purpose, and words that are intended to place the target of the threat in fear. When viewed through the lens of a probable cause determination, the juvenile’s statements here are readily distinguished from protected speech. His words were intended to place his teacher in a state of fear.
As we can see from this case, not all speech is protected speech. What constitutes a threat is a question that relies heavily on context. For more information on free speech laws, follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook.