More Stories Of People Arrested For Making Joke Threats On Social Networks

from the investigate-and-let-it-go dept

Earlier this year. we wrote about a guy in the UK, Paul Chambers, who was arrested after he tweeted a message about blowing up his local airport if it didn't reopen in time for the flight he had to take the following week. The message was clearly a joke. Now, as I mentioned at the time, I have no problem with the police doing a quick check to make sure it's really a joke, but that's as far as it should go. Instead, the police ended up arresting him under the Terrorist Act and eventually charged him with a crime. They did not charge him with making a fake bomb threat (which is a crime) because they knew that such a charge wouldn't stand up in court. Instead, they charged him with using the internet to send a "message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character." Chambers is back in the news, as he's now appealing his ridiculous conviction.

If you thought such things only happened in the UK, it turns out you'd be wrong. I was just listening to a recent episode of This American Life, which covered an amazingly similar situation, involving American comic Joe Lipari. After having what can charitably be described as a "bad" Apple store experience, he went home and was watching the movie Fight Club -- and got "inspired" by a famous line from the movie, and paraphrased it into a Facebook status reading:
Joe Lipari might walk into an Apple store on 5th Avenue, with an Armalite AR-10 gas-powered semi-automatic weapon and pump round after round into one of those smug, fruity little concierges. This may be someone you've known for years. Someone very, very close to you.
It's a pretty direct paraphrase from the movie. Yet, it took all of about an hour for a bunch of NYC police at his door, carrying machine guns and wearing bullet proof vests.

Just like the case of Chambers in the UK, rather than recognizing that this throwaway social media message, charges were filed against Lipari -- and they were pretty serious charges. There were two felony charges -- including one for "making terroristic threats." Rather than dropping it after recognizing this was joke, the case actually started out by going to court -- where the ADA even admitted to the judge that they knew Lipari was a comedian and this was a joke intended for his friends... but they still wanted to push forward. Lipari, to his credit, turned down various plea deals, believing that the whole concept of him being arrested and charged with this was ridiculous. The story ends with the ADA finally backing down, and the case is currently likely to be dismissed (though it hasn't fully been dismissed yet).

The similarities between Chambers' situation in the UK and Lipari's situation in the US seem pretty clear -- and neither are particularly flattering for law enforcement folks. Yes, obviously we still live in a time where "heightened awareness" to potential threats makes sense. But, at some point (and probably some point really, really early on), it should have become clear in both of these cases, that these were just two guys making stupid jokes via their social networking status tools -- and that's the point at which everything should have been dropped. That both cases went much, much further is a travesty, and suggests that law enforcement is wasting time on things like this, rather than real threats.

On a separate note, if you keep listening to the second story on that same episode of This American Life, it's yet another depressing tale of really questionable police activity, and how the police didn't just turn on a guy who tried to fix the system, but literally came up with trumped up charges to get him locked up in a mental institution without telling anyone. Folks in law enforcement talk about the respect that they deserve, but by doing things like this, they show they haven't earned such respect.

Filed Under: joe lipari, jokes, law enforcement, overreaction, paul chambers, social networks


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  1. identicon
    Frank, 8 Dec 2010 @ 9:41am

    Re: Not sure about this one....

    policeman Szpak and his supervisor John Doe

    Attention: Internal Affairs, NYPD

    I am writing to you regarding my complaint number 08-21523 against police officer Szpak from 104th NYPD Precinct of Queens: 64-2 Catalpa Ave., NY 11385. I gave you a full account of what happened to me and now nearly a year has passed and I have not heard from you.

    Could I please ask what the status of this matter is, as I do not feel safe after the way I was treated by that officer and by his supervisor at the precinct. I am still afraid of this policeman, as I hear from third parties that he feels vengeful towards me because I made a complaint.

    Just to refresh your memory, I will write in short what had transpired, which you already have in your records. Basically, I was turning left at the intersection at the corner of my house and the officer was attempting to turn left from the lane opposite me. I turned left passing his vehicle which was standing dangerously in the lane against traffic. He was waiting for change of lights from red to green at Metropolitan Ave. i 69th St.. I then proceeded into my driveway and when I was already standing in the doorway to my apartment, he appeared in his car in my courtyard, approached me and asked me for my driver’s license. I gave it to him. He went to his car and after a while called me on the loudspeaker to leave the house and get in my car. I chose not to do so, as I was tending to my daughter who was very sick. I then called his supervisor at the precinct and explained the situation and also informed the officer that I had done so. He pulled away with my driver's license and left. Since he took my driver’s license, I called the precinct to inquire about it and was told by his supervisor that the officer had left for the day and that I should come and retrieve my driver’s license myself. When I got to the precinct, the officer on duty with whom I previously talked on the phone, directed me to the very officer who took my driver’s license, who was changed into plain clothes. During the conversation they took my small video camera which I suppose infuriated policeman Szpak and his supervisor John Doe. I was told I was a terrorist and would be taken into arrest. They were making various sarcastic comments and told me that after arrest I’d be deported. Officer Szpak handcuffed me. There were other policemen there who were entertained by this crude show of power over me. They proceeded to ridicule me and call me a terrorist and said that I would never receive my license back and I will be deported back to the “shitty country” that I came from. I spent 24 hours in jail, after which I was released.

    I have the entire scene of the officer’s behavior in my courtyard on video.
    At the moment I’m preparing an exhibition of paintings, drawings and photos with which I’d like to honor victims of power abuse./ www.coolon.net /

    I kindly ask you to get back to me regarding this matter promptly. Thank you very much.

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