Federal Hate-Crimes Bill Promotes Double Jeopardy

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that many supporters of the federal hate crimes bill want to allow people who have been found innocent of a hate crime in state court to be reprosecuted in federal court.

Apparently, this was true of the most prominent supporter of the bill when it was first introduced, the Clinton Administration. Syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum pointed out in 1998 that Janet Reno, Clinton’s Attorney General, backed the bill as a way of providing a federal “forum” for prosecution if prosecutors fail to obtain a conviction “in the state court.”

As Sullum notes, the hate crimes bill exploits a loophole in constitutional protections against double jeopardy, known as the “dual sovereignty” doctrine. The Supreme Court created this loophole in its 5-to-4 Bartkus decision.

UPDATE, April 29, 2009: Attorney General Eric Holder also has advocated hate-crimes legislation to prosecute people whom state prosecutors refuse to prosecute because of a lack of evidence. To justify broadening federal hate-crimes law, he cited three examples where state prosecutors refused to prosecute, citing a lack of evidence. In each, a federal jury acquitted the accused, finding them not guilty.

Advocates of a broad federal hate-crimes law have pointed to the Duke Lacrosse case as an example of where federal prosecutors should have stepped in and prosecuted the accused players — even though the state prosecution in that case was dropped because the defendants were actually innocent, as North Carolina’s attorney general conceded, and were falsely accused of rape by a woman with a history of violence (including trying to run over someone with her car) and making false accusations. Supporters of federal hate-crimes legislation like Janet Reno view it as a way of getting around constitutional protections against double jeopardy, by allowing reprosecution in federal court of people who have already been found innocent in state court. For example, MALDEF and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights cite the example of Pennsylvania teenagers who were found innocent of a hate crime against an illegal alien in state court as a reason for passing the bill.

Civil libertarians like Wendy Kaminer have criticized the federal hate-crimes bill for taking advantage of a loophole in constitutional double-jeopardy protections. (Attorney General Holder has also been criticized by civil libertarians for seeking to undermine the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.) U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Gail Heriot has also criticized the bill for circumventing protections against double-jeopardy. In an April 29 letter, she and three other Civil Rights Commissioners urged Congress not to pass the federal hate crimes bill.

I wrote earlier about how the federal hate-crimes bill backed by Obama and Congressional leaders would violate constitutional federalism safeguards, and how it would allow people found innocent in state court to be retried in federal court. Supporters of the hate-crimes bill have all sorts of rationalizations for disregarding not-guilty verdicts. Hate-crimes activist Brian Levin, who testified before Congress, claims reprosecutions are needed because local jury pools are biased. NOW Legal Defense Fund told Congress that reprosecutions are appropriate if local prosecutors had “inadequate resources” or were of “questionable effectiveness.”

Given the politically-charged nature of many hate-crimes trials, Kimberly Potter of New York University was probably right when she told Congress back in 1998 that if the federal hate crimes bill is enacted, “the acquittal of [hate-crimes] defendants in state court will frequently trigger demands for federal prosecution.”