Crimes and Courts

Current Law Allows Minors to Post Public Threats

Kids play around with all kinds of things. But there has been a trend to play around with copying the violent threats towards schools and posting them on social media. Saying they are going to shoot up their school or blow up someone they don’t like.

Threats have been made in Montana, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Texas and of course here in Florida. One lead to an arrest by the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. Most of the copycats are minors.

And the most disturbing thing we discovered was, in Florida, many of the copycat threats posted by minors were legal through a legal loophole.

They may or may not know it, but the NRA’s challenge to the new school safety bill would destroy the amendment to close this loophole.

The law these minors in Florida are being charged with is Florida Statute: 836.10; Written threats to kill or do bodily injury. A law was written back in 1913 and updated in 2010 to include electronic communication.

Under the law, if a minor posts a violent threat on Twitter and does send it to his/her target, it’s free speech. And this isn’t hypothetical. It happened in 2016.

In 2016, the Florida 2nd Circuit Court had to appeal a juvenile conviction. The case was an appeal of the J.A.W v. The State of Florida. Since his Twitter followers were not from his school, it did not violate the portion of the law that requires the threats to be sent to their intended target. Even after the juvenile had posted “can’t wait to shoot up my school”, “school getting shot up on a Tuesday”, on twitter he had to be released.

In the court opinion itself, the judge pleas to the Florida State Congress to do something about this loophole:

“We emphasize, however, that the type of threat at issue, in this case, pose a serious problem… The Legislature may wish to revisit section 836.10 (current law) to address the modern problem of threats issued and shared publicly on social media.”

Now here’s a sad part of this story, the state legislature did and failed.

In 2017, House Bill 575 and Senate Bill 260 was introduced. They each had to get through five committees before it can be voted on house and Senate floor. The bills got past each committee with unanimous approval until it got to the final committee where… time ran out.

The session was over and everyone went home. The two bills were never brought up again.

In the state senate, the bill made it to the last committee it needed before it can be voted on the floor. That committee was the Rules committee, and it was and still is, chaired by Lee County’s very own Lizbeth Benacquisto. We reached to her office and every office of the rules committee to see why the bill was never brought back up.

As of the time of this writing, they have not responded to our requests for an interview.

It’s impossible to know if this bill would have put any red flags in light of the recent tragedy. With the passing of the School Safety bill, it will help the prosecution of these cases.

If the school safety bill is struck down, the loophole will reopen. Remember the loophole makes it technically legal for minors to post threats online as long as they don’t send the threat to the intended target.

The loophole is closed in the school safety bill with this important language in the law:

“Any person who writes or composes and also sends or procures the sending of any letter, inscribed communication, or electronic communication, whether such letter or communication be signed or anonymous, to any person, containing a threat to kill or to do bodily injury to the person to whom such letter or communication is sent, or a threat to kill or do bodily injury to any member of the family of the person to whom such letter or communication is sent
or any person who makes, posts, or transmits a threat in a writing or other record, including an electronic record, to conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism, in any manner that would allow another person to view the threat, commits a felony of the second degree,”

We’ll have to see if the bill survives the legal challenge. If not, the whole bill will be sent back to the state congress and the loophole will open back up.