U.S. Civil Rights Commission Opposes Federal Hate Crimes Bill on Double Jeopardy and Civil Liberties Grounds

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has decided to oppose the federal hate-crimes bill. The Commission calls the bill a “menace to civil liberties” because “its most important effect will be to allow federal authorities to re-prosecute a broad category of defendants who have already been acquitted by state juries.” Thus, it will erode protections against double jeopardy.

In deciding to oppose the bill, the full Commission agreed with the position earlier taken by four individual Civil Rights Commissioners, who sent a letter to House leaders on April 29 opposing the bill. The House approved the hate-crimes bill on a partisan 249-to-175 vote.

Earlier, the Washington Blade and Christian Science Monitor reported that the Senate would likely approve the hate-crimes bill this week, by attaching it to a totally unrelated bill, the Travel Promotion Act. That was a strange legislative tactic, designed to keep Senators concerned about the broad reach of the hate-crimes bill from even having the opportunity to amend its provisions or fix its flaws.

As civil libertarians have noted, the hate-crimes bill’s supporters want to allow people who have been found not guilty in state court to be reprosecuted all over again in federal court. A recent example is a commentary by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights on May 5 blog entitled, “Pennsylvania Teenagers Acquitted of Hate Crime; Federal Law Needed.” It approvingly quotes the General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund arguing that the federal hate-crimes bill is needed based on not-guilty verdicts like the recent acquittal in state court of teenagers accused of a hate crime against an illegal alien from Mexico. 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.

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 defendants in state court will frequently trigger demands for federal prosecution.”

The hate-crimes bill also violates constitutional federalism safeguards, such as the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Morrison (2000).