‘It is still a crime’: DA explains law after teen only charged with misdemeanor after threatening to shoot up Wilmington movie theater

DA explains law after teen only charged with misdemeanor after threatening to shoot up Wilmington movie theater

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Many reached out to WECT last week when a Wilmington teen was only charged with a misdemeanor after he allegedly made a social media post, threatening to shoot up a Wilmington movie theater.

The 16-year-old was taken into custody Friday and charged with one count of cyberstalking, according to deputies. He was released from jail after posting an unsecured $2,500 bond.

Last year, many juveniles were charged with felonies after making or sharing similar threats.

The difference? Those threats were made directly against a school.

Under NCGS 14-277.6 and NCGS 14-277.6, it is a Class H felony to communicate a threat of mass violence on educational property or at a place of religious worship.

“I was very pleased when the North Carolina legislature made that a class H felony, to communicate by whatever means and we would contend that include social media, doing mass violence on either an educational facility or religious institution. That does not yet include theaters, so we’re still under the old law there that makes it an A1 misdemeanor to communicate a threat to do violence at a place like that,” New Hanover County Distrct Attorney Ben David said.

Cyberstalking is a Class 2 misdemeanor charge which carries a lesser punishment thank communicating a threat, which is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

According to the statute, one stipulation of communicating a threat is “the threat is made in a manner and under circumstances which would cause a reasonable person to believe that the threat is likely to be carried out."

In this case, deputies found the individual did not have access to any weapons. Therefore, he was charged with cyberstalking, as it has broader stipulations.

While it is not a felony to make a threat of mass violence on a theater or other public place aside from schools and places of worship, it does not mean it is legal to do so.

“It’s still a crime, it’s just not the one for enhanced punishment that we specifically carved out in these time, place, and manner restrictions,” David said.

What separates this from being a felony is the fact that the teen made a threat against a theater, not a school or place of religious worship.

There are some states that specifically name social media in threatening mass violence, like Florida and Maryland, but David says the DA’s office believes North Carolina laws include threats made over social media or via electronic communication, like text messages.

“We believe the law currently includes that because the law specifically says ‘by whatever means.’ And we have tested that in the communicating threats context and have tested that in the communicated threats context and have specifically had that aspect upheld many times whether that’s through social media online or direct texting, it’s pretty clear that it encompasses electronic communication,” David explained.

He does not believe the legislature will change the wording to make it more specific.

“The legislature, in general, likes to leave some sort of ambiguity so it can encompass situations that they haven’t foreseen and give prosecutors and police the discretion to look at when those things should be charged,” David said.

David explained there is a fine line between The First Amendment and Public Safety.

“The First Amendment is narrowly confined to something called time, place, and manner restrictions which means there’s a time and place for certain speech, and there’s certain restrictions that can be done to limit or curtail that speech in everyone’s safety,” he said.

The First Amendment protects free speech, but it never has protected violent speech or hate speech.

“Certainly you could continue to broaden the scope, and at some point point the policy consideration is where does individual liberty stop and public safety begin? Or vice versa? So that’s always going to be the tension in our country making sure we allow everyone to peacefully live without the government intruding but also keeping everyone safe at the same time," David said.

Arrest warrants allege the teen, using the name “cheezeclazone,” made a post on Instagram on Thursday that stated: “I’m going to shoot up am AMC theater in Wilmington North Carolina behind Sonic at 7:50 on October 8th.”

The post was later deleted.

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