Court stalls case of social media threats on cops
The Michigan Supreme Court intervened to delay the trial of a Detroit man who faces terrorism-related charges after he was accused of threatening police officers on Facebook — giving the high court time to consider claims that the case should be tossed out because the online posts are protected under the First Amendment.
Nheru Littleton’s case had been slated to go to trial Monday in Detroit’s Wayne County Circuit Court. But the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the trial would be postponed while it considers whether to let the case go forward.
Attorneys for the 41-year-old auto factory worker argued the charges against him should be dropped because the comments posted on Facebook are protected speech and do not rise to the level of what would be considered a “true threat.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has also joined in the fight to see the case dropped, warning that Mr. Littleton is being prosecuted for anti-government speech.
“The language causes a lot of anger,” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, of the Facebook comments at hand. “But translating that into an arrest and a felony prosecution is an abuse of power.”
Mr. Littleton is accused of posting a series of threatening messages on Facebook last summer, including praise of a lone sniper who days earlier had killed three police officers in Dallas.
“All lives can’t matter until Black Lives matter !!!! Kill all white cops!!!” read one message obtained by police.
Mr. Littleton was one of four men arrested in July by Detroit police in connection with messages on social media threatening officers. After reviewing the evidence in the case, a local prosecutor said there was no basis for criminal charges.
But the state’s attorney general later reviewed the evidence and opted to charge the military veteran with making a terrorist threat and using a computer to commit a crime. The felony crimes are punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
“A threat to law enforcement officers is a threat to us all,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said at the time. “This is a fight worth fighting. We cannot allow it to be open season on police.”
Mr. Schuette’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s ruling.
The high court’s ruling orders the Michigan Attorney General’s Office to respond to Mr. Littleton’s appeal application within 28 days. The court ordered that the previously scheduled trial “not occur until the completion of this appeal.”
At the time the posts were made, Mr. Littleton was on vacation in Puerto Rico and intoxicated. His attorneys asked Circuit Judge Vonda Evans to dismiss the case in March, but she said the posts caused a “ripple effect” that created fear among police that they would be targeted for violence and declined.
“True threats wound by their very utterance,” Judge Evans said, according to The Detroit News.
Mr. Littleton’s attorneys, Leon Weiss and Wade Fink, appealed the decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals. The court rejected the appeal in May.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid “a very public trial,” the attorneys asked the Michigan Supreme Court to consider an appeal, arguing that the lower courts had erred in not finding that Mr. Littleton’s comments were protected under the First Amendment, and allowing the case to move forward.
“Words that are unspecific threats and are not reasonably construed as inciting imminent violence cannot be prosecuted,” they wrote in the petition to the state’s highest court.