I confess to being of two minds about this university student’s predicament:
The 19-year-old University of Central Florida theater student whose fake bomb led to the evacuation of the Hollywood 16 movie theater has been released from the Marion County Jail after posting a $5,000 bond, and a top prosecutor said he’s not sure what his office will do with the case.
Matthew F. Pye, 19, was arrested Saturday on a charge of manufacture, possession and display of a hoax weapon of mass destruction. The bogus bomb, which Pye created for a UCF theater class, consisted of five tightly wrapped sticks of “dynamite” attached with wires to a white timing device.
There are two main issues here that I see: the legal issue, and the common sense issue.
First the common sense issue. Context is important. If he was in the parking lot of a federal building, I could understand the reaction. But he was at a movie theatre. In all honesty, if I saw something that looked like a bomb in my local theater’s parking lot, I’d probably ignore it. It’s just really, really long odds that it presents any danger. It’s far more likely that it’s a fake (for any of a thousand reasons) or that it’s a legitimate possession of TNT.
But teenagers see the bomb. Being teenagers, they freak out a little (they might even know it’s a fake and just be having fun), and someone calls their dad. Their dad listens to his son or daughter describe a “bomb in a car” and instead of thinking what’s most likely (legitimate possession or a prop) goes for the worst case scenario and calls the police. The police, instead of sending someone over to look at the situation before going nuclear, send everyone and a bag of chips in on the word of, at best, a 15-year old.
I’m willing to entertain the notion that maybe the university student was being careless in his judgment. But I’m pretty certain that the father and the police are being a little careless. Now I know that some people are going to say, “But you can’t be too careful…” But that’s just false. You can be too careful — there’s the old security-liberty trade off to think about — and you can also be careless in how you go about being careful. That’s the common sense issue.
The legal issue is more interesting. This purports to be the relevant Florida hoax weapon statute.
When I first read the story, I thought it odd that people were talking about weapons of “mass destruction.” And indeed, the statute concerns only nuclear, radiological, biological, or chemical weapons and their knock-offs.
Second, the hoax clause requires a very specific intent:
Any person who, without lawful authority, manufactures, possesses, sells, delivers, displays, uses, threatens to use, attempts to use, or conspires to use, or who makes readily accessible to others, a hoax weapon of mass destruction with the intent to deceive or otherwise mislead another person into believing that the hoax weapon of mass destruction will cause terror, bodily harm, or property damage commits a felony of the second degree.
In other words, you have to intend to convince other people that it is real. It’s not enough that people think it’s real. This is why the local D.A. is “not sure” what they are going to do about this. Even if the student did intend to scare people… he’s probably been arrested under the wrong statute, because dynamite-qua-weapon is neither nuclear, chemical, nor biological.