Earlier this week, a Canadian woman from Quebec named Pascale Ferrier was arrested by American border agents crossing into the United States near Buffalo, New York. She was wanted by law enforcement for allegedly sending an envelope containing ricin to the White House. (Ricin is a potentially lethal poison) The envelope was addressed to President Donald Trump and contained a note calling him, among other things, an “Ugly Clown Tyrant”. Fingerprints from the package sent to the President matched fingerprints on file from Ms. Ferrier’s previous incarceration in Texas. The letter and its contents also appear to match several other letters sent to prison officials in Texas, which also appear to have contained ricin. At the time of her arrest, Ms. Ferrier also allegedly had a firearm in her waistband.
For now, Ms. Ferrier is charged in a D.C. federal court with one count of violating 18 U.S.C. Section 871 (Threats against the President). Among other things, this charge makes it illegal for a person to knowingly deliver a letter containing a threat to take the life of the American President. The maximum penalty for this charge is 5 years in prison.
Ms. Ferrier is likely to face additional charges soon, however. For example, should law enforcement choose to charge her for the threatening letters she might have sent to the officials in Texas, she could face several counts of 18 U.S.C. Section 2332b (Acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries). Basically, if a person attempts to kill an official of a U.S. government agency through the mail in a manner transcending national boundaries, then that person can be charged with this crime. Those charges would carry potential life sentences.
If Ms. Ferrier has a felony conviction stemming from her period of incarceration in Texas (it is unknown to the author), then she could also potentially be charged with a felony for illegally possessing a firearm as a felon. That crime would carry an additional potential maximum penalty of ten years in prison.
Finally, Ms. Ferrier was recently deported from the United States following her incarceration in Texas. As such, her attempt to re-enter the United States was probably also illegal. The applicable federal crime for illegal re-entries after removal/deportation is 8 U.S.C. 1326. The penalties for that crime depend upon the manner in which the person was removed/deported, and whether it followed a felony or aggravated felony conviction.
Ms. Ferrier may attempt to use a psychiatric defense. The content of her alleged letters – not to mention her actions – certainly suggest some mental illness. The ultimate question, however, is not whether a defendant is mentally ill, but whether that mental illness prevented the defendant from appreciating the illegality or wrongfulness of his/her actions. The fact that the letters were sent anonymously suggests that the perpetrator knew the risks of being discovered, and sought to avoid capture. So, the defense – at first glance – seems unlikely to work. It may, however, be a mitigating factor at sentencing at some point.
Matthew Galluzzo, the author of this post, is a French-speaking criminal defense attorney in New York City. He recently commented on this matter on Canadian French-language television. He regularly represents foreign citizens in federal matters throughout the United States, and concentrates his practice primarily in the federal courts of New York City.