Terroristic Threats Emerging From the NCAA Tournament

Omaha basketball official John Higgins has received hundreds of threats from fans furious over his calls during an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game between Kentucky and North Carolina on March 26.

After several death threats were allegedly received via email and voice mail, the Sarpy county sheriff’s office in Nebraska opened an investigation. Some people recently posted on Facebook and Twitter that Internet threats are not a crime; those people are wrong. The crime of terroristic threats can be committed on the internet and is a felony that carries up to three years in prison under Nebraska law. Terroristic threats can be charged by prosecutors when any person threatens to commit any crime of violence. This includes “talking smack” on the internet.

At this point, it is unclear how the Sarpy county attorney’s office will make charging decisions. However, Omaha law enforcement believes messages Kentucky fans (who knows, they may really be jealous Louisville fans) made against Higgins could be charged as criminal acts.

This is not a new phenomenon. Last year during the political season, Berry Law represented individuals charged with state and federal crimes for threatening politicians. While many people argue that threats are free speech, free speech does have its limits. Free speech does not allow one person to threaten to kill, seriously injure, or otherwise harm another person.

Before the prevalence of email and social media, Berry Law defended clients who made terroristic threats delivered to public officials by telephone calls, voice messages or written letters.

It is much easier to make these threats today. People often make threats through Twitter, Facebook, and other means of online communication without really thinking things through. Sometimes these messages are meant as jokes. Other times, people are just venting frustration and do not intend to act upon their feelings. Often alcohol is involved.

Unfortunately, when it comes to electronic threats, the author’s specific intent of the message is not always clear. Last year, Berry Law represented a man who got into an argument with his ex-wife over Skype regarding her failure to provide financial support to their son. The woman called the police, indicating that she was afraid because her ex-husband threatened her. The accusation was silly because the husband was a disabled veteran living on the east coast. He had difficulty traveling and wouldn’t be able to get to Nebraska without making special arrangements that could take days based on his disability. However, Nebraska prosecutors still decided to charge the case.

It will be interesting to see how many Kentucky fans are charged with terroristic threats or possible lesser misdemeanor crimes for their reaction to basketball official John Higgins’ controversial calls during their tournament loss. Fortunately, these claims are defensible.

If you have been charged with terroristic threats or statements you made in support of your football or basketball team, contact Berry Law.

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