Federal Hate Crimes Bill Will Erode Civil Liberties and Undermine Constitutional Safeguards Against Double Jeopardy

On April 23, the House Judiciary Committee voted 15-to-12 to approve a dramatic expansion of the federal hate-crimes law. The bill, H.R. 1913, would add gender, sexual orientation, and transgender characteristics to a law originally designed to protect racial minorities. It also greatly expands the law’s reach over local offenses typically handled by state prosecutors, by eliminating many jurisdictional limits.

The bill would allow people who have been found innocent of a hate crime in state court to be reprosecuted in federal court. 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, citing the Pennsylvania teenagers who were recently acquitted of committing a hate crime against an illegal alien. As one supporter put it, “the federal hate crimes bill serves as a vital safety valve in case a state hate-crimes prosecution fails.” The claim that the justice system has “failed” when a jury returns a not-guilty verdict is truly scary and contrary to the constitutional presumption of innocence and the right to trial by jury.

But it is a view widely shared among supporters of the hate-crimes bill. 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 noted, the federal 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.

Supporters of the hate crimes bill also see it as a way to prosecute people even in cases where the evidence is so weak that state prosecutors have decided not to prosecute. Attorney General Eric Holder has pushed for the hate crimes bill as a way 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 broader 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.

Civil libertarians like Wendy Kaminer have criticized the federal hate-crimes bill for taking advantage of a loophole in constitutional double-jeopardy protections. Law professor Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, has also criticized the bill for circumventing protections against double-jeopardy. Three other Civil Rights Commissioners joined her in urging Congress not to pass the federal hate crimes bill in an April 29 letter.

I wrote earlier about how the federal hate-crimes bill backed by Obama and Congressional leaders would violate constitutional federalism safeguards, such as the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Morrison (2000), 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 lame 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.” (These rationalizations make no sense and have no principled limits: there is no evidence that state juries are more biased than the federal juries that would hear federal hate-crimes cases, or that they are typically biased; and even well-funded prosecutors have complained of having inadequate resources).

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.”

The bill’s sponsors seldom talk about that controversial aspect of the bill, however, when addressing the general public. Instead, they trumpet the fact that the hate-crimes bill would include gays, lesbians, and transgendered people among the classes of people it covers.

The bill’s supporters, such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the ACLU, claim the law is needed because of the case of Angie Zapata. Zapata is a transgender woman whose lover killed her when he found out she was biologically a man. But this argument makes little sense, given that Zapata’s killer was swiftly convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by a Colorado state court, which found the killer guilty of both murder and hate crimes. (The federal hate crimes bill does not provide for the death penalty, and its maximum penalty is the same one that Zapata’s killer got: life without parole).

The bill’s Senate sponsors named the 2008 version of the bill after Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was killed in Wyoming. That was a cynically clever strategy. Hate-crimes laws are fairly popular: 45 states have hate crimes laws, and most of them ban hate-crimes based on sexual orientation.

But precisely for that reason, a federal hate-crimes law is duplicative and unnecessary. Moreover, even the few states that don’t have hate-crimes laws, like Wyoming, still punish hate criminals under their laws against murder and assault. The killers of Matthew Shepard were given life sentences, which is the maximum penalty available under the federal hate-crimes bill. (Ironically, the Wyoming prosecutor wanted them to get the death penalty, while liberal groups like Lambda Legal, which supports the federal hate-crimes bill, oppose the death penalty in all cases). There is no evidence that any state gives people who commit hate crimes lesser sentences on average than people who commit similarly violent crimes not motivated by bias.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose the federal hate crimes bill, which is known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. But since it was used as a political wedge issue in the 2008 election by both the Democratic Party and President Obama, who support it, there is little doubt that it will pass Congress and be signed into law by the President.

The ACLU long opposed the loophole in Constitutional double-jeopardy protections that the bill is designed to exploit. But it switched its longstanding position in order to back the federal hate crimes bill, apparently believing that civil-liberties must be sacrificed in order to fight hate.

The ACLU’s support for the federal hate-crimes bill is hypocritical for another reason: the bill seeks to circumvent double-jeopardy protections recognized by a treaty called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the U.S. ratified in 1992. The ACLU has also long argued that the United States should not only comply with that treaty but give it a very expansive interpretation.

Article 14 of the treaty specifically prohibits double jeopardy, without any exception for the loophole relied on by supporters of the federal hate crimes bill, mandating that “No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted.”

But the ACLU conveniently ignores the treaty when it comes to the federal hate-crimes bill, even though the ACLU has sought to stretch the treaty’s language to achieve a host of liberal political goals, such as mandating “affirmative action” in the U.S. The ACLU also has argued for an expansive interpretation of the treaty to require benefits for illegal aliens. For example, the ACLU criticizes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Hoffman Plastics case, which refused to award illegal aliens backpay against employers who fired them. The ACLU’s bizarre interpretations of the treaty conflict not only with its language, but also with the longstanding practices of most ICCPR signatory countries, which neither practice affirmative action nor give benefits to illegal aliens.