Blog Post

Can an Emoji Land You in Jail?

They might be popular on social media platforms and text messages, but posting the wrong emoji at the wrong time can land you in a world of trouble. is reporting on emoji usage that some courts say cross the line from expressing emotion to threatening people’s lives.

“The use of emoji has challenged lawyers, judges, and lawmakers in several countries. In a legal context, emoji are increasingly recognized not as joke or ornament, but as a legitimate form of literacy,” reports Marilyn McMahon and Elizabeth Kirley. “Perhaps the most troubling use of emoji has come through their use in interpersonal messages where it is unclear whether they modify or amplify a prima facie criminal threat.”

For example, a New Zealand judge sentenced a man to eight months in jail for stalking his ex-partner after he sent her a Facebook message in which he wrote, “You’re going to get it” followed by an airplane emoji. This can vary depending on the Correctional facilities by state but the judge in this case concluded that the message and the emoji conveyed the threatening message that he was “coming to get” his partner.

The authors cite another case that occurred in France in 2016 where a man was convicted of threatening his ex-girlfriend through a text message because he included a gun emoji in the message. The court concluded that the emoji amounted to a “death threat in the form of an emoji” and sentenced the man to six months in prison.

A case in Spartanburg County, South Carolina also resulted in an arrest after the defendants, who had previously attacked a victim, sent him a message comprised of three emojis – a fist, followed by a pointed finger, followed by an ambulance.

“They were subsequently arrested for stalking,” McMahon and Kirly report. “And what exactly was the threat contained in their message? That the victim would be beaten (fist) leading to (pointed finger) hospitalization (ambulance)."

Two U.S. teens also found themselves in hot water after posting emojis on their social media pages. In one case, a high school student was charged with computer harassment and threatening school staff after posting messages on her Instagram account that used a gun, a knife and a bomb.

A 17 year-old from New York was charged with making a terrorist threat when he posted a emoji of a policeman with three guns pointing at him on his Facebook page.

Although he was eventually acquitted, another teen wasn’t so lucky. In her case, she sent a series a tweets that included a variety of emoji weapons and was convicted of making a criminal threat. She tried to say that the emojis were a joke but the court didn’t buy it.

It’s not only criminal problems that can arise. In the case of a New Zealand woman, she ended up in court after sending a text message filled with positive tweets about an apartment she wanted to rent.

“Good morning (smiley face emoji) interested in the house (dancing woman) (dancing twins) (peace sign) (comet) (squirrel)(champagne) just need to discuss the details… when's a good time for you?"

The prospective landlord assumed that she was very interested in the property and took down the ad as he intended to enter into negotiations with her and her partner. He asked them to get in touch with any amendments they wanted to make to the contract so it could be signed, and they agreed.

However, the couple abruptly cut off contact, saying later that they didn’t like the condition of the building, which left the landlord scrambling to find another tenant. He took the couple to court and the judge ruled in his favor, saying that the use  of the emojis conveyed “great optimism” and were misleading. Even if they no longer wanted the apartment, they should have conveyed this to the landlord, the judge said.

As a result, they were ordered to pay compensation and court costs.

“ . . . [O]ne of the main problems with the use of emojis is that their interpretation is very fluid,” writes Beatriz Alonso for Blarlo. “Each individual interprets and represents emotions quite differently. But we are not talking about simply what a drawing may suggest to an individual. . . . Also, if you are talking to someone from another culture, other complications can be encountered during the conversation.”

The bottom line is that there are very real risks in the use of emojis. Some convey messages that can be misleading and even threatening – which is why they are landing some people in jail.

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