Key point. An array of civil and criminal remedies are available to clergy who receive communications that threaten harm or death.
A New York federal court ruled that a police officer acted properly in arresting a church member who sent the pastor a series of threatening emails.
A church member (the “plaintiff”) sent a series of text messages to the church’s pastor in which he claimed to have been offended by some of the religious views expressed by the pastor in his sermons. The plaintiff’s messages included the following statements:
While I am learning, what it means to love my enemy, and I am not fully there; I don’t like you, nor the wickedness that you do, from the pulpit. . . . You keep provoking with your attacks from the pulpit, you keep telling your one-sided story from the pulpit, and this can leave two wives without husbands, and children without a father. . . . You better ask God to stop you.
The pastor made a complaint to the local police department concerning the plaintiff’s messages. In response, a police officer called the plaintiff and asked him to come to the precinct to discuss the pastor’s complaint. The plaintiff went to the precinct and met with the officer. After the plaintiff confirmed that he sent the messages to the pastor, the officer arrested him for aggravated harassment in the second degree.
The prosecutor’s office charged the plaintiff with two counts of aggravated harassment in the second degree for sending threatening text messages to the pastor. The criminal charges were dismissed, but the court ordered the plaintiff to refrain from communicating with the pastor.
The plaintiff sues arresting officer
The plaintiff sued the officer who arrested him, claiming that he should not have arrested him for sending the messages, and that the officer had committed false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The court noted that “p robable cause is a complete defense to claims for false arrest . . . and that probable cause requires an officer to have knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been committed by the person to be arrested.”
In rejecting the plaintiff’s false arrest claim, the court concluded:
There is no real dispute about what led to the plaintiff’s arrest. The plaintiff, angry about the pastor’s sermons, sent him a series of messages that included one in which he said wives would be left without their husbands and children would be left without their father. The pastor filed a complaint with the police. After the plaintiff admitted sending the messages, the officer arrested him for aggravated harassment based on those messages. The officer reasonably interpreted the messages as threats to the pastor. . . . Therefore, as a matter of law, the officer had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff for aggravated harassment, and the false arrest claim fails.
What this means for churches
As this case illustrates, persons who send threatening communications to a pastor face possible criminal liability for doing so. They also may be compelled by court order to refrain from any contact with the pastor. Abdullah-Sadiq v. Venticinque, 2019 WL 359979 (E.D.N.Y. 2019).