Criminal Law

Internet Threats to Kill

I'm going to kill someone! How many times have you heard those words? Perhaps you've muttered them yourself. Most of the time the words are just empty threats - the harmless venting of anger or frustration. But sometimes the message is clear and the threats are real.

Pennsylvania shooter George Sodini posted details of his murderous "exit plan" on his Internet blog before opening fire in a local gym. He killed three people and wounded nine others. Could this tragedy have been averted if someone had reported Sodini's Internet rants to authorities?

Do you have a legal duty to tell police about criminal plans posted on the Internet? Shouldn't you act to prevent such violence?

No Legal Duty to Snitch

As any first-year law student could probably tell you, one strange disconnect between legal theory and real-world morality is that generally there is no legal duty to prevent or rescue anyone else from violence by a third-party. You probably won't be charged with a crime or sued for civil damages if you don't warn about diabolical plots you see posted on the Internet.

Misprision of Felony

Like any general rule though, the no-duty-to-warn rule has its exceptions. Specific laws, like those requiring teachers, doctors and others to report suspected child abuse, may require you to report a suspected crime. An old federal law for misprision of felony makes it illegal to fail to report a felony to authorities. Michael Fortier was convicted of misprision of felony for failing to warn about his friend Timothy McVeigh's plan to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

However, misprision of felony requires more than just a failure to warn. Keeping quiet about criminal plans isn't enough. To be convicted of misprision, there must also be proof of a positive act to cover up the crime, like lying to the FBI, hiding evidence, or harboring the criminal.

Special Relationships

Courts have also carved out exceptions to the no-duty-to-warn rule based upon special relationships. Someone having a special relationship to the perpetrator or victim might be legally obligated to warn about a planned or foreseeable crime. Some of these special relationships include:

  • Family members: In some cases, assault victims successfully sued the assailant's family members for failing to warn about or prevent the assault. These actions alleged that particular relatives knew about the assailant's violent nature, mental imbalance, or collection of weapons and had a duty to warn the victim. In one case, a wife was found liable to sexual molestation victims for failing to warn about her husband's record as a sex offender
  • Psychotherapists and psychologists: In the well-known case Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, the California Supreme Court held that once a therapist determines that a patient presents a serious danger of violence to another, the therapist must use reasonable care to warn and protect the intended victim
  • Businesses: Court have ruled that bars, restaurants, stores and other businesses have a duty to use reasonable care to warn about and protect customers from foreseeable crimes that occur on their business premises and parking lots

Send a Tweet, Save a Life

Generally speaking, unless a special law applies or you have a special relationship with the victim or the perpetrator, you're not legally required to report someone else's criminal plans posted on the Internet. But just because you aren't legally required to prevent a crime doesn't mean you shouldn't act. Hopefully, most people agree that we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent murder and mayhem.

Earlier this year, actress Demi Moore received an online message from a woman who threatened to commit suicide. Moore, who frequently sends messages through the online social network Twitter, responded with a short "retweet" saying she hoped the woman was joking.

Some Twitter followers notified authorities about the online postings, enabling police to track the suicidal woman to her California home and take her into custody for psychological help. Moore's online posting and her Twitter fans' calls to police may have saved a life. They had no legal duty to help the woman, but like Moore tweeted, she "felt uncomfortable just letting it go."

Report a Crime or Suspicious Activity

If you spot criminal plans or suspicious postings on the Internet, don't be afraid to report it to the proper authorities. Law enforcement agencies depend upon the eyes of the online community to help prevent and solve crimes. It's easy to report a crime, and it could literally save a life.

  • Call "911" or your local or state police departments if a life is in danger or to report other emergencies and crimes in progress
  • Contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation to report suspected terrorism or criminal activity
  • File an online complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center to report cyber crimes

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I'm concerned about something I read on a blog of a student at my child's school that may involve a possible crime - do the police have to follow up on my concerns and the information I provide?
  • In the example of a therapist's duty to warn an intended victim, what happens if the victim's identity isn't clear? Would someone with such a special duty or relationship have any responsibility to narrow down the victim's identity?
  • If a possible crime involves information found on the Internet, which police department or other law enforcement agency has the duty and authority to act?
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