Mentally ill man's bomb threat ruled 'true threat' to Sea-Tac

Mar 27, 2012

If you  threaten to blow up an airport, you'll  face jail time. According to the Washington State Court of Appeals, that's true even if you're mentally ill and the threat is not considered credible.

Back in 2009, James S. Ballew called 911 and, after asking to speak with a specific officer with the Port of Seattle Police, told the dispatcher he had five friends who had placed bombs in and around Sea-Tac Airport.

The call was traced to Harborview Medical Center’s psychiatric ward. 

Ballew had been committed there involuntarily. Several days earlier, he’d tried to buy an airline ticket with a promissory note. 

When police interviewed Ballew in the psychiatric ward, he continued to claim there were explosives hidden around the airport.  But, he also told officers he’d been in the Air Force for 53 years and had a “cosmic” security clearance, higher than just top security. 

Based on the interview, police determined the threat was not credible.

'True threats'?

Still, Ballew was charged and convicted of making a bomb threat. He appealed, arguing that his free speech rights were violated and, based on his mental health status, a reasonable person wouldn’t have considered his statements “true threats.”

But, in an opinion issued on Monday the Court of Appeals upheld Ballew's conviction. In the opinion, the Court wrote:

"Ballew argues that ... evidence was insufficient because he was involuntarily committed and had no ability to place a bomb at the airport. But Ballew's inability to actually bomb the airport does not disprove that he threatened to do so."

The  Court noted that Ballew's call to 911 and statements regarding the bombs could all be seen by a reasonable person as a "true threat" to public safety and, as such, not protected by the 1st Amendment right to free speech.

Ballew served a 9 month sentence for making the threat.


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