Teen Arrested For Emoji-Laden 'Terroristic Threats'
from the the-smoking-emoji dept
The question will probably never be satisfactorily answered, but here it is again: what constitutes a “terroristic threat?” According to the NYPD, it’s a line of emoji (emoticons) guns pointing at an emoji cop’s heads.
Osiris Aristy, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn, does not hold back in his Facebook status updates. He posts about his love for blunts and cough syrup, wanting to buy his mother a bigger home, and his disdain for the police.
Most of Aristy’s anti-cop status updates seem tame compared to the vitriol found all over the internet. They are not altogether different from many hip-hop lyrics, where the figure of the cop killer is sometimes an archetype of rebellion and power.
But on the evening of Jan. 15, according to a criminal complaint, Aristy posted a photo of a revolver with bullets beside it, and wrote he felt “like katxhin a body right now.”
Shortly thereafter, he posted the following:
N***a run up on me, he gunna get blown down,’ followed by an emoji of a police officer with three gun emojis pointed at it, according to a criminal complaint.
And at 11:05 p.m., Aristy posted “F**k the 83 104 79 98 73 PCTKKKK,” followed by the police officer emoji with two gun emojis pointed at it, the DA’s office said.
Here’s some of Aristy’s earlier “work,” for illustrative purposes.
That was enough for the NYPD. Three days later, Aristy was arrested. Due to the recent death of two officers at the hands of a man who posted threats online and actually followed through with him, the NYPD is taking every precaution to avoid a repeat of this tragedy. But this insight into its everyday tactics should give would-be criminals pause, as well as anyone else in the New York City area with publicly-accessible social media accounts.
Police received an arrest warrant from District Attorney Ken Thompson’s office after routine Facebook monitoring found that Aristy had posted selfies with guns, selfies with marijuana joints and statements made with emojis threatening to kill cops, according to the DA’s office and 83rd Precinct Inspector Maximo Tolentino.
“Routine Facebook monitoring.” That sort of statement demands a follow-up, but the NYPD being the NYPD, there won’t be any further details forthcoming. Is it some sort of data grabbing software that focuses on keywords and location? Or is it a handful of cops actively monitoring feeds and only capturing “relevant” information? Or is it just a terrible way of rephrasing “someone reported a threat and the NYPD followed up on it.” The latter seems most likely, considering Aristy’s earlier posts using the same emoji-gun-pointed-at-emoji-cop imagery was ignored.
One thing is for certain: the NYPD is all over perceived threats.
Ever since the December’s lone gunman made good on an Instagram threat to kill two cops, the NYPD has arrested at least five people for threatening police on social media.
(The actual number of cases is likely higher. The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for the exact number of people arrested on such charges. The department also did not respond to questions regarding the criteria used to decide when to make arrests based on online threats.)
And no further details there, either.
The underlying dilemma will likely never go away completely. There’s no bright line between talking smack and issuing threats. A threat isn’t a threat without intent and it’s very difficult to prove its existence (or lack thereof). But the New York state statute governing terroristic threats — like many others around the nation — is a product of post-9/11 legislating. And like the others, it’s overly broad. While it still requires prosecutors to prove intent, it’s wide open enough to sweep up stupid statements, trash talking and about a million aspiring rappers.
The statute says that any statement intending to intimidate civilians or the government by threatening to commit a specific offense can be prosecuted as terrorism. It adds that a defendant’s unwillingness or inability to actually carry out the threat “shall be no defense.”
Applied to Aristy’s emoji, this statute seems to fail. No specific offense is contained in his postings. Only vague but violent assertions. On the other hand, the photo of the revolver adds credence to Aristy’s ability, if not his willingness, to carry out the emoji-illustrated threats.
As for the intent, that will be determined in court, if the judge doesn’t dismiss the case altogether. Because of the law’s broad wording and the NYPD’s increased surveillance of suspicious social media posts, there’s plenty of room for intimidation and abuse.
“The threshold to make an arrest is not the same as the one for a conviction,” [NY University law professor] Neuborne said. “This gives the police very significant power to harass people.”
Since the bar to obtain an arrest warrant on charges of making terroristic threats is only probable cause of the author’s intent, the NYPD could potentially arrest anyone who makes anti-cop statements, even if they come in the form of emojis.
Aristy is likely looking at doing time, even if the terroristic threat charge is dismissed. Police found 25 grams of marijuana and a gun while searching his residence.
The defining line between threats and free speech is still muddied. A case before the Supreme Court — involving Anthony Elonis’ social media postings (he says the posts were “rap lyrics,” his ex-wife and local law enforcement believe they are “true threats”) will attempt to sort this out. Whether the ruling will actually clear anything up remains to be seen. At the moment, it’s still a great way for stupid and obnoxious people to get arrested for typing faster than their brains can process. Or, as in the case of Aristy, a way to turn self-proclaimed street cred into a prison sentence.