Man sentenced to federal prison after tweeting threats to U.S. Senator

A man was sentenced Wednesday, June 13 to six years in federal prison after tweeting threats to U.S. Senator Joni Ernst.

Joseph Hilton Dierks, age 34, from Waterloo, Iowa, received the prison term after a November 22, 2017, jury verdict found him guilty of three counts of sending threatening communications.

Evidence showed that Dierks began sending Senator Ernst threatening tweets in from his Twitter account to her Twitter accounts in August, 2017.  Police sent officer to Dierks’ home, and Dierks promised the officer he would “tone it down.” Within 24 hours later, he was back to tweeting threats.

In sentencing Dierks, Judge Reade emphasized Dierks’ escalating criminal history, which included a prior conviction for harassing a Waterloo police officer and carrying weapons.  Dierks also filmed himself tracing a knife on the outline of an unwitting neighbor across the street and offered to cut him up.

“The safety of elected officials is something that cannot be taken lightly,” said United States Attorney Peter E. Deegan, Jr.

The Law

In 2015, a historic Supreme Court case, Elonis v. United States, attempted to establish judicial precedent for threatening someone over the Internet.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that federal law makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce "any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another." The opinion instructs the jury to decide whether the communication would be regarded by a "reasonable person" as a threat.

Elonis had posted to Facebook threatening messages and self-written rap lyrics that specifically mentioned his ex-wife and co-workers. Although he had mentioned that his lyrics were fictitious, those involved in his posts didn't think so.

The Court's closing argument showed that it didn't matter whether the threats were serious coming from the defendant. All that matters is whether those targeted by the threats truly feel in danger.