On April 29, the House voted 249-to-175 to pass the federal hate crimes bill, which the bill’s supporters explicitly want to use to prosecute people already found innocent in state court all over again in federal court. Such reprosecutions are, sadly, allowed under a Constitutional loophole known as the “dual sovereignty” doctrine, which says that state and federal governments are different sovereigns, and that double jeopardy only applies when you are prosecuted twice by the same sovereign. (This loophole was established in the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 Bartkus decision, over a stinging dissent by Justice Black).
In the past, the possibility of reprosecutions was viewed as a vice, not a virtue, and civil-rights advocates and lawmakers alike have sometimes cited this risk in opposing bills broadening the reach of federal criminal laws. But civil-rights groups now view double jeopardy as a virtue when it comes to people accused of hate crimes. They consider hate crimes so terrible that not even innocence should be a defense.
The latest example of this comes from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (a coalition of hundreds of liberal civil-rights groups including the ACLU), and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a May 5 blog commentary entitled, “Pennsylvania Teenagers Acquitted of Hate Crime; Federal Law Needed.” It approvingly quotes the General Counsel of MALDEF arguing that the federal hate-crimes bill is needed based on the acquittal in state court of teenagers accused of a hate crime against an illegal alien from Mexico: “Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, which will . . . give federal government jurisdiction over prosecuting hate crimes in states where the current law is inadequate. ‘[T] his verdict underscores the importance of the passage of this Act,’ said Henry Solano, MALDEF interim president and general counsel. ‘It is time for the Department of Justice to step in and bring justice to the Ramirez family and send a strong message that violence targeting immigrants will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.’ The Justice Department is currently investigating whether to prosecute the two teenagers under federal civil rights statutes.”
By contrast, four Independent and Republican members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission opposed the federal hate-crimes bill in an April 29 letter, calling it a “menace to civil liberties,” since its “most important effect” will be to circumvent double-jeopardy guarantees.
MALDEF and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights are not alone in seeking to reprosecute people found innocent in state court. Many supporters of the hate crimes bill want to allow those found innocent to be reprosecuted in federal court. 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.”
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 and law professors like Gail Heriot have criticized the federal hate-crimes bill for taking advantage of a loophole in constitutional double-jeopardy protections.
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 existing federal hate-crimes law only covers race, but not gender, sexual orientation, or disability, and it does not reach most hate-crimes, but rather only those that involve federally-protected activities).
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).
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 (albeit with a long series of reservations, understandings, and declarations — including one dealing with double jeopardy) 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, and not seek to hide behind any reservations made by the U.S. in ratifying the treaty.
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.