Typically when a crime occurs, law enforcement will investigate the incident to determine who is a suspect. Without a suspect, there is no one to prosecute for the crime.
There is one type of federal crime that the Justice Department has found difficult to prosecute, mostly because it is hard to pinpoint who the suspect is. The crime is threatening a federal official. It doesn't matter what federal official it is or whether the threats are empty; it is still a federal crime.
In many of the situations, threats are made via the postal service, the Internet, and even phone calls. But without any information as to who is making the threats, the Justice Department has a harder time identifying the source of the threat.
Some threats are actually accompanied by the person's name and address. One man sent letters, threatening to kill the president; he made sure to include his address with each letter. Other individuals have included their name with their threats, allowing the Justice Department to easily track them down.
Here are some examples of cases where an individual made threats against federal officials and was prosecuted:
- A Massachusetts man received a prison sentence after threatening to show up at a courthouse with his gun
- A California man spent years sending threats to the president and was arrested; he argued freedom of speech and charges were eventually dropped
- An Alabama man made threats against the president both over the Internet and to a Secret Service agent; he was prosecuted but found to be mentally incompetent
Ultimately being prosecuted for a federal crime such as threatening a federal official can result in serious penalties. Even making empty threats could result in a prison sentence.
Source: The Wall Street Journal online, "Few are charged over threats against US officials," Associated Press, 14 February 2011