An en banc ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals contends that corporations are actually not people, when the case in question considers an individual writing “death threats” to corporations.

The case had to do with a man named Kurt Havelock, who planned but never carried out a shooting at the Super Bowl in 2008. Havelock mailed his threat to media organizations but did not target anyone specifically. An original three-judge panel ruled that this did not constitute a criminal act:

The case concerned Kurt William Havelock, who drove to the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, with a newly purchased assault rifle and dozens of rounds of ammunition with the intent to kill. “It will be swift and bloody,” he wrote media outlets in packages mailed a half hour before he got cold feet and abandoned his plan. “I will sacrifice your children upon the altar of your excess.”

With the prodding of his father, he turned himself in to local police. Federal authorities charged him with six counts of mailing threatening letters. The defendant was convicted on all charges and sentenced to a year in prison.

During the trial and on appeal, the 40-year-old, who was disgruntled that he was denied a liquor permit to open a bar, argued that he committed no crime at all. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in a 2-1 decision.

Under the threatening-letters statute, “the ‘person’ to whom the mail is addressed must be an individual person, not an institution or corporation,” wrote Judge William Canby, who was joined by Judge Betty Fletcher. Havelock’s communications were mailed to media outlets, not named individuals, the majority noted.

Now the entire Ninth Circuit has ruled on the matter, and they agreed with the preliminary ruling that death threats mailed to corporations aren’t illegal, specifically because corporations are not people for the purposes of this criminal statute:

Whoever knowingly so deposits or causes to be delivered [by the Postal Service according to the direction thereon], any communication with or without a name or designating mark subscribed thereto, addressed to any other person and containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of the addressee or of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

In the en banc opinion, the Ninth Circuit rules:

§ 876(c) refers exclusively to an individual, or to a natural, person. Therefore, the statute requires that the threatening communications be addressed to a natural person. We also hold that in order to identify the addressee, a court is not limited to the directions for delivery on the outside of the envelope or on the packaging, but also may look to the content of the communication. Because appellant Kurt William Havelock’s (“Havelock”) communications were not addressed to natural persons, we reverse his six convictions of mailing threatening communications in violation of § 876(c).

Obviously this is a strange case to determine the nature of whether corporations are people, and the interpretation could be viewed here as quite narrow. But it does show the difficulty with playing out that argument. It may fit in terms of free speech – at least for the Supreme Court – but it doesn’t for a wide majority of other cases. Is there such a thing as a corporate death penalty? Can a corporation be held for perjury? And so on.

If we start splitting the baby between “persons” and “natural persons” we’re just going to twist statutes to the point of being unrecognizable. This could bolster the case down the road for striking corporate personhood.