World Bulletin/News Desk
FBI agents arrested a Colorado man who posted online threats advocating the killing of police officers after investigators received a tip about one of the messages from Google, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Jeremiah Perez, 33, was detained without incident at his home in Colorado Springs on Monday and faces up to five years in federal prison if convicted, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado said in a statement.
It said Google urgently contacted the FBI's San Francisco office on Dec. 17 to report a comment on a YouTube video from someone going by the username "Vets Hunting Cops."
Referring to a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in Missouri in August, the message read in part: "SINCE DARREN WILSON our group has killed 6 retired sheriffs and cops ... because of this event we will hunt two more in colorado this week ... for every innocent citizen that cops kill WE, VETERANS WILL KILL RETIRED HELPLESS COPS."
The FBI tracked the user's profile to an address in Colorado Springs, and on Monday its agents contacted Perez there.
"At that time they determined that he knew that law enforcement officers would see the post and his intent was for them to be fearful after reading it," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in its statement. "He was then arrested."
Two New York City police officers were shot and killed as they sat in their patrol car on Saturday in an attack that commanders dubbed an assassination and which has left police forces around the country on edge.
According to an FBI arrest warrant affidavit, Perez served in the U.S. armed forces. It said he told agents his father was a police officer employed by the U.S. Air Force, and that he had "bad experiences" growing up around law enforcement.
Perez told investigators he has had some problems with police officers in the past, and he "described an incident where he believed he was treated differently because of his Latino heritage," the affidavit said.
U.S. Attorney John Walsh said anyone who threatened to kill police officers, or who incited others to kill them, should expect "some very serious attention" from the authorities.
"The perceived anonymity of the Internet will not serve as a shield for espousing violence," said FBI Denver Special Agent in Charge Thomas Ravenelle.
Perez has a preliminary hearing scheduled on Dec. 29.
'Wings on pigs' vs speech rights
Compared with other countries, the United States has a strong guarantee of speech rights even when the speech displays racism, hatred or violence. State laws, though, generally make it a crime to communicate a specific threat against a police officer or anyone else.
So despite the federal speech guarantees, prosecutors have won convictions for threats against officers.
Generally, a threat "has to have some degree of specificity of who is going to be attacked, or what place is going to be attacked, or some other detail along those lines," said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor.
A gunman, identified by police as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, on Saturday ambushed two New York City police officers while they were sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn. Authorities said Brinsley's posts on Instagram, a mobile photo-sharing application, indicated he had been motivated by the deaths of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of white police officers.
Shortly before the shootings, Brinsley wrote "I'm putting wings on pigs today."
Legal experts said a conviction was unlikely in the Chicopee case unless the threat had some specificity to it and there are several examples over the past few years.
A state judge in Pennsylvania this year sentenced two men to prison after they were found guilty of making threats in a rap video on YouTube. According to the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the video threatened two officers who were involved in arresting the men months earlier and referenced a man who was convicted of killing police officers in 2009.
In 2007, an Ohio man was charged with threatening officers' personal lives. The man had already been charged with impersonating a police officer during a bar fight, and in a 47-minute recorded phone call, he told the police chief that he was retaliating by investigating officers' bankruptcy files and housing records.
"You're screwing with my life, so I'm screwing with yours," he said on the call, according to court records. The man was convicted of retaliation by threats.
In Connecticut, a man was once charged after he pulled his car up alongside a jogging, off-duty police officer and told him, "I'll kick your ass." They had met previously. The man was convicted of breaching the peace, a category that includes threats to commit a crime, and in 2003 the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the conviction.
Context matters in threat cases, so much so that in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that burning a cross was protected speech if done in an open field and not intended to intimidate someone specific, but potentially a crime if done before the home of an African-American family. The white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan has used cross burnings as a tool of intimidation.
The high court on Dec. 1 revisited the law of threats to consider another question: Must prosecutors show that a person intended to threaten, or is it enough to show merely that a reasonable person would have felt threatened?
States are not uniform on that standard, and a ruling in the case is expected by the end of June.