12-Year-Old Girl Is One Of Many Facing Criminal Charges For Emoji Use

A 12-year-old girl found herself in hot water after posting a message on Instagram using the gun, knife and bomb emoji. The police charged her with threatening her school.

These types of incidents are becoming increasingly more common as the use of emoji continues to grow and has become the unofficial language of the web.

One of the challenges facing officials is emoji do not come with concrete definitions. Is the “winkie” face emoji teasing and playful or menacing? It is subjective. Each individual emoji’s meaning varies with the individual using it.

A large part of any criminal case is trying to establish intent. Determining the intent of the person sending a message laden with emoji is virtually impossible. Attorneys, in recent years, have argued over whether or not messages containing icons and symbols are viable as evidence.

The problem facing prosecutors is further compounded when court officials are asked not only determine the intent of the message, but also decipher the message’s meaning. Case in point: a Michigan judge was shown the emoji: 😛 (face with tongue sticking out) and was asked to determine its meaning. He of course, could not.

In a similar case, a New York City grand jury was tasked with deciding if the emoji (? ?) constituted a genuine threat to police officers. In this particular case, a teen took to Facebook and expressed a dislike for the police based on a recent unpleasant encounter; however, the teen’s attorney argued that he never threatened to act on the insinuation of violence or to retaliate against the police. The teen was charged with making terroristic threats. The charges were eventually dropped.

On the surface, these cases seem a bit egregious and taken out of context. They seem to be simple cases of kids blowing off steam and expressing their displeasure with certain systems in their lives. Shouldn’t they be encouraged to express their feelings and speak out when they feel they have been wronged? Are these cases of authorities overacting?

Let’s dig a little deeper…

In the case with the 12-year-old girl, she mentioned in her post, killing and then said, “Meet me in the library Tuesday”. This was in addition to the gun, knife and bomb emoji.  In an age where school shootings happen so regularly, can one really blame authorities for taking the post seriously? Furthermore, once the case was finally unraveled and sorted out, it was determined that the girl posted the message in the name of another middle school student. Surely, this shows that this girl knew that posting this particular message was inappropriate and could be deemed threatening and she clearly intended –at the very least–to cause problems for another student.

The case in Brooklyn, where the 17-year-old expressed his displeasure by posting a gun next to the head of a police officer, also wrote “N—- run up on me, he gunna get blown down.” He also posted “F*ck the 83 104 79 78 73 PCTKKK”, next to a similar string of emoji with police and guns.  Add to those messages the fact that when the police did arrest him for the alleged threats, he was in possession of a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. He was charged and prosecuted for third-degree weapons possession.

The police got it right.

Episodes of violence are at an all-time high. In our society we riot when the police overreact and we crucify them when they under-react. Police officers are sworn to protect and serve, let’s give them a little room to do their job. In these cases, they accurately perceived a threat and acted in a reasonable and preventative manner.

Featured Image is by Megan Fisher on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

Denise is currently a writer and editor for a federal agency in Washington, DC. Prior to that she served as an elementary and middle school teacher in Charleston, SC. She is an open-minded free spirit always read for new adventures. She enjoys traveling and relishes being exposed to alternate points of view. She is passionate about what she does and does everything passionately. Faith, family and finances are the core of her value system. She follows her own path and marches to her own beat. She is a dream chaser and with her husband and best friend by her side, she plans to take over the world.