The internet keeps giving people new ways of reaching out and touching the lives of others. Unfortunately, it's also giving people new ways of committing crimes. In a case that's likely the first of its kind, a Texas man was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a hate crime enhancement even though the weapon of choice was nothing more than an animated graphics interchange format (GIF). Learn more about this case so that you better understand how cyber-world actions can have serious real-world consequences.
How can one little GIF cause so much trouble for the sender?
A well-known Dallas journalist had been public about his seizure disorder, including the fact that he is photo-sensitive to certain images, like those with strobe lights or rapidly flashing animation. The fact that he's Jewish is also well known to his readers.
Apparently, the journalist managed to catch the attention and ire of a Maryland man, who was unhappy with the political nature of the journalist's recent posts online -- so he sent the journalist a message on Twitter saying, "You deserve a seizure for your post." An animated GIF, specifically chosen for its epileptogenic -- or seizure-inducing -- qualities was attached.
The trick worked. The journalist had a seizure and was hospitalized.
How does this qualify as aggravated assault and a hate crime?
Most people think of assault and they think of broken bones or black eyes -- but assault is actually any act that puts a person in fear of serious bodily harm or some kind of contact most people would find offensive. In some states, there is a separate charge of battery -- which means actually causing the bodily harm or contact -- but other states combine the two into one charge.
An aggravated assault is an even more serious charge than simple assault or battery. Simple assault can be elevated to aggravated assault usually because a weapon was involved (a tire iron in a back-alley fight, for example, instead of bare fists), through the nature of the degree of harm done the victim, and even the mental state or intention of the defendant (meaning he or she fully intended to seriously hurt or maim the victim, even if he or she was not successful).
Provoking a seizure on purpose is a form of assault and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) say that sending the GIF via the internet is no different than sending anthrax through the mail.
Cyberstalking is the least of the crimes the defendant may be facing.
The Maryland man was originally held on cyberstalking, a less serious crime, while an investigation was being pursued into his choice of GIF. The investigation into the Maryland man's computer and contacts indicated he had targeted the journalist for being Jewish. That added the hate crime enhancement, which means that any conviction would mean more severe punishment.
The defendant also encouraged at least 40 other people into sending the same or similar images to the journalist -- and they're also facing investigation, which means more charges are likely coming. It's possible some sort of conspiracy charge could eventually be added.
Internet crimes of any sort can involve state charges, federal charges, or both. Before you make any decisions, talk to a criminal defense attorney, like one from Medeiros & Associates, in your area.
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