Boston, MA – A federal jury acquitted a man on Friday who was facing charges for tweeting an offer to pay someone to kill a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents took 33-year-old Brandon Ziobrowski of Cambridge into custody for a threatening tweet he posted on July 2, 2018 after he solicited pledges to cover the cost of paying people to assassinate ICE agents, NBC News reported.
“I am broke but I will scrounge and literally give $500 to anyone who kills an ice agent. @me seriously who else can pledge get in on this let's make this work,” Ziobrowski tweeted using the Twitter handle @Vine_II.
On July 5, the Department of Homeland Security first noticed Ziobrowski's tweet looking for people to kill ICE agents, NECN reported.
Investigators also found more tweets, going as far back as February, which promoted violence against police.
"Guns should only be legal for shooting the police like the second amendment intended," Ziobrowski tweeted, according to NECN.
Twitter removed the post and suspended Ziobrowski’s account later in July at the request of law enforcement, NBC News reported.
Authorities said the man had also previously tweeted about wanting to "slit" the throat of U.S. Senator John McCain, according to NECN.
During the press conference announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling pointed out the recent uptick in violence against police officers.
Lelling said investigators had determined that Ziobrowski’s motive was his disagreement with the mission of ICE. He also harbored a “violent dislike” for McCain and the police.
"He appears to just be some guy living in Cambridge who feels strongly on this subject," he said. "Feeling strongly about something is fine. Putting people's lives in danger is not fine."
The case was developed and investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, NBC News reported.
Ziobrowski had been charged with using interstate and foreign commerce to transmit a threat to injure another, the Associated Press reported.
The now-35-year-old man was facing up to five years in prison and as much as a $250,000 fine if he had been convicted.
After the acquittal, his attorney Derege Demissie said the whole case “should never have gone this far,” the Associated Press reported.
“The government turned a tweet that was made in jest — a hyperbolic political statement — into a federal case,” Demissie said.
The defense attorney successfully argued that Ziobrowski’s comments were constitutionally-protected political speech on social media that had been “blown out of proportion” by prosecutors, according to the Associated Press.
“This is a guy who tweets about all kinds of things and says outrageous things,” he said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann disagreed and said that Ziobrowski’s tweet was not free speech and protected by the First Amendment because it had crossed the line into a “true threat,” the Associated Press reported.
Judge Denise Casper told jurors before they deliberated at Ziobrowski’s trial that the central question was whether the defendant had intended to communicate a “true threat” or at least knew other people might take it that way.
The judge also told the jury that a true threat does not include “caustic” or “sharp” political attacks, which are considered protected speech under the First Amendment, according to the Associated Press.
The U.S. attorney said that the jury’s verdict would not dissuade his office from going after people who make threats against law enforcement officers, FOX News reported.
“We respect the jury’s verdict,” Lelling said. “But in this case, the defendant posted a tweet that, on its face, offered $500 to anyone who killed a federal agent. In 2019, over 100 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty. The public needs to know that, regardless of today’s verdict, we will never hesitate to prosecute apparent threats against law enforcement officers.”