Noise pollution and a lawsuit filed by a pedestrian led to a Chicago Uber driver’s series of chilling threats on Facebook. Fortunately, the mass murder and mayhem he threatened never came to pass but, following his conviction for making interstate threats to injure others, he says that he shouldn’t be punished for what he says were flights of fantasy not intended to be taken seriously.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals waxed poetic about social media in the case of US v. Khan. Digital platforms, the court said, unleash a virtually limitless ability to interact with the world. Along with the positive potential created by this opportunity there are repercussions for those whose comments provoke fear.
Over the course of seven weeks Mohammad Khan posted messages threatening to hunt and murder college students, dog walkers, the wealthy, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and any witnesses that got in the way. He indicated that he was carrying a loaded gun while driving for Uber and posted pictures of himself brandishing the firearms he said he would use to carry out his murders. He said that he planned a spree of killings within the next 30 days, which he would livestream, after which time he was scheduled to fly to Pakistan.
Khan’s tirades caught the attention of the FBI. Illinois Police run a website that allows users to submit anonymous complaints and when they got a tip with a link to Khan’s Facebook page they passed it along to the feds. Khan’s page was public, so the FBI had no problem viewing his chilling posts. The FBI started surveillance, in conjunction with local sheriffs.
When a Detective pulled Khan over he spotted the handle of a gun in the driver’s side door. Khan admitted he didn’t have a concealed carry license and was arrested. A loaded nine-millimeter handgun was confiscated. When the FBI searched his home that same day they recovered a semi-automatic handgun and a 12-gauge shotgun.
Despite the recovery of these weapons, Khan said that his posts were nothing more than artistic hyperbole… an imitation of rap music protected by the First Amendment. He said that he considered Facebook a free notebook that nobody was interested in reading. He pointed out that he had only one Facebook friend, but the court felt that using a public platform to keep a private diary seemed odd and pointed out that it was within the jury’s power to assess his flimsy argument. They did; and found him guilty.
The court was also unmoved by Kahn’s complaints that the original anonymous tip hadn’t been preserved, the lack of additional evidence supporting his traffic stop, and the question of whether any of the people he threatened were ever aware of his posts. The information he posted was enough to provide reasonable suspicion that he posed a threat, and the statute under which he was convicted does not require that the targets of threats be aware of them. They affirmed his conviction and sentence to 41 months imprisonment.
In the words of the court, boundless connection to the world can betray. Whether or not Kahn was legitimately planning mass-murder, his Facebook posts aroused contemporary concern about gun violence and rideshare safety. Social media accounts are introduced as evidence in an increasing number of cases and those who make threats online might find that the only new follower they get is the FBI.