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Committee kills bill aiming to make some social media threats a felony

Brent Duerre

The proposal hinges on a question – just how severe of a punishment is appropriate if, for example, a tweet threatened a law enforcement officer.

For the bill’s sponsors and Dan Nelson, Brookings County States Attorney, that should rise to felony levels.

“We’ve had cases here in Brookings County where it has happened involving this, so this isn’t a solution looking for a problem," Nelson said. "This is actually a problem. If you write a threat on a piece of paper and give it to that law enforcement officer, it’s a felony. The logical thing to do would be to include an online threat.”

However, for some in the state legal community, it’s a steep punishment. Cash Anderson, lobbyist for the state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said a class five felony for a tweet is excessive.

“The world is very different now, by the time I get back to my seat I could fire off a tweet of threatening language, and I could do it when I haven’t had a second to breathe or think," Anderson said. "That worries me. A kid quoting NWA when they’re pulled over – does that jeopardize their entire future with a felony charge?”

Anderson said he feels a class 1 misdemeanor is more appropriate in this scenario. For context, a class five felony holds a maximum sentence of five years and a $10,000 fine. This proposal would put that single tweet in the same classification as check forgery, persistent stalking offenses, and promoting prostitution.

For Sam Matson with the state Trial Lawyers Association, the bills language is concerningly broad.

“Bodily injury is not a high standard, and back to social media comments – if someone were to comment on Facebook ‘I want to shake some sense into officer X’, I think under this bill they could be prosecuted under a class five felony,” Matson said.

Those arguments were supported by the committee, who ultimately killed the bill on a 7-5 vote.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture