When Worlds Collide: A Tweet Constitutes An Assault
Sometimes a tweet is just a tweet in the online world, and other times it can amount to an assault in the “real” world. At least, that’s the difficult lesson learned by John Rayne Rivello, a Maryland man who was indicted in Texas and charged with the hate crime, Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon, in violation of PC 22.02(a)(2).
In December 2016, Rivello allegedly sent a tweet to Kurt Eichenwald, a senior reporter for Newsweek, following Eichenwald’s appearance on Fox News. The tweet included an image with the accompanying text, “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.”
Eichenwald suffered from epilepsy, something he’d shared publicly in the past. The image that accompanied the tweet was an animated GIF of a strobe light intended to trigger seizures in those who were susceptible to them. The tweet had the intended effect and caused Eichenwald to suffer from an 8-minute seizure, after which he was unable to speak and was then reportedly incapacitated for a number of days.
As a result of the incident, an investigation was conducted resulting in Rivello’s indictment and arrest last week. This case is interesting for two reasons. First, the allegations in this case represent a unique intersection of technology with criminal conduct. Second, the investigation that was conducted to support the charges involved law enforcement access to Rivello’s Twitter and iCloud accounts.
Turning to the allegations, they are unusual in that the “deadly weapon” is considered to be Rivello’s hands, electronic devices, and the content of the tweet he sent. Each item alone is arguably harmless, but according to the indictment, when combined within the context of this incident, became a deadly weapon with which Rivello knowingly caused injury.
Specifically, the Grand Jury’s indictment alleged that on December 16, 2016, he “intentionally, knowingly, and recklessly caused bodily injury to Kurt Eichenwald, a disabled person…by inducing a seizure with an animated strobe image, knowing that the complainant was susceptible to seizures and that such animations are capable of causing seizures, and said defendant did use and exhibit a deadly weapon, to wit: a Tweet and a Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), and an Electronic Device and Hands, during the commission of the assault…And further that the Defendant did intentionally select said Kurt Eichnewald primarily because of the said Defendant’s prejudice or bias against a group identified by race, ancestry, or religion, namely: persons of Jewish faith or descent.”
The investigation conducted by law enforcement is also noteworthy since it represents an increasing trend in today’s technology-infused world: digital footprints are becoming a regular source of evidence in criminal cases. In this case, search warrants were issued allowing the police to review Rivello’s Twitter and iCloud accounts. Evidence obtained included direct messages sent by Rivello to other Twitter users including that he knew that Eichenwald had epilepsy, intended for the tweet with the strobe GIF to trigger an epileptic seizure, and that the hoped the seizure would kill Eichenwald.
After reviewing files stored in his iCloud account, investigators discovered research regarding the victim, epilepsy seizure triggers, and the progress of the investigation into the attack on Eichenwald. The evidence obtained from Rivello’s online accounts established that his sent the Tweet and helped to show the necessary intent and his motive to harm Eichenwald.
This indictment is clear evidence that the times they are a’changin’, with the online world and the offline world rapidly merging. The influence of social media and technology on our day-to-day lives is inescapable and cannot be ignored. What was once viewed as a fad is now part of the very fabric of our world and lawyers who ignore the effects of technology do so at their own peril.
It’s undeniable: the online world impacts your cases, your clients, and your practice. Embrace it or be left behind.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.