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United

States v. Morales Case Review


Amanda D. Seals, Summer 2014
EDLD 8431 HIGHER EDUCATION LAW

Summary of United States v. Morales, United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, 2001, 272
F.3d 284.

Facts:

The case reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals affirms the conviction of the
defendant and the holdings by the district court in a previous case, which set precedent for its
ruling.

In United States v. Morales, under a screen name in an Internet chat room to another chat
room user, the defendant made lethal threats against teachers and students at his high school
in Houston, TX. The defendant did not know the woman who he made the threats to nor did
she did not know him. However, due to the nature of his comments, the woman contacted
authorities in order to protect the safety of those mentioned in the chat with defendant.

Despite telling the authorities that he was joking about his threats, the defendant was arrested
and later indicted for knowingly and intentionally transmitting in interstate commerce a threat
to injure another in violation of 18 U.S.C. 875. Section 875(c) reads: Whoever transmits in
interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person
or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not
more than five years, or both.

First, the defendant filed pretrial motions to dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds.
Later during his jury trial, he moved for a judgment of acquittal, and then again objected to the
proposed jury instructions by the court. The jury sentenced the defendant to 24-month
probation. After conviction, the defendant also sought motions for judgment of acquittal and a
new trial. All of his motions were denied throughout the judicial process. The defendant then
turned to the United States Court of Appeals, which referenced the precedent set by United
States v. Meyers in its ruling against the defendant.

Issue(s):

Are the statements made by the defendant through the Internet a true threat given
the context in which the comments were delivered?

Was there evidence that the statements were made with the intent to intimidate by the
defendant?

Did the government establish that the defendant intended to communicate a threat in
his statements?

Answer(s):

YES. A communication is a threat under 875(c) if "in its context [it] would have a
reasonable tendency to create apprehension that its originator will act according to its
tenor." United States v. Myers, 104 F.3d 76, 79 (5th Cir. 1997). The court examined the
comments in context and was able to determine the comments were a true threat.

YES. The focus was on whether the threat "in its context would have a reasonable
tendency to create apprehension that its originator will act according to its tenor."
Myers, 104 F.3d at 78. The defendant admitted during trial that he knew his statements
were wrong and that he understood why the woman took them as a threat.

YES. Noting that "[a]s a straightforward matter of textual interpretation, we will not
presume that a statutory crime requires specific intent in the absence of language to
that effect," and recognizing that " 875(c) contains nothing suggesting a specific intent
requirement," we held that the government was not required to prove that the
defendant intended the statements to be threats. Myers, 104 F.3d at 80-81.

In all three questions posed in appeal by the defendant, the court is able to reference the
precedent set in the United States v. Meyers litigation to uphold the ruling by the district court.
The court disagreed with the defendant that even though his threat was made to a third party

Reasoning of the Court: E.Grady Jolly, Circuit Judge: the court affirmed the ruling of the district
court stating there was no error in denying the motions for judgment of acquittal or denying
the jury instructions requested by the defendant.

Also in this case, the plaintiff was not required to show that the intent to garner a threat was
communicated directly to the person the harm was intended. Indeed, the defendant can make
his threats to a third party and still be considered an act of true threat. The court upheld this
principle that was set originally in United States v. Meyers.

Cases such as this are important in higher education as the academic setting becomes more
electronic. Students, faculty and staff use online tools for research and for coursework.
Neither a student, a professor nor administrator can use the First Amendment for protection if
his or her actions are threating to another person, regardless if it is direct or through a third
party. Free speech and electronic communication have perimeters under federal statute that
are in place to protect the greater good.