I deliberately avoided coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, as I did the Casey Anthony trial, the O.J. Simpson trial, and most other high-profile cases. But upon waking up this morning, I did take notice of Zimmerman’s acquittal and ensuing calls for federal authorities to bring “civil rights charges” against him. This got me to thinking, what civil rights charges? And how likely is it that the federal authorities will file these charges?
Upon review, it appears that the closest “fit” among federal crimes would be 18 U.S.C. § 249, a recently enacted federal hate-crimes statute (officially, The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009). Section 249(a) provides:
(a) In General.—
(1) Offenses involving actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin—
Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person—
(A) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and
(B) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if—
(i) death results from the offense; or
(ii) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.
Section 249(a)(2)* is to similar effect, except that it applies to crimes motivated by “the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person,” and contains a more elaborate federal jurisdictional “hook.”
What is the government’s track record in section 249 cases? Well, there have been few section 249 prosecutions to date. In looking for cases that have concluded their district-court phase, I could find only the following:
United States v. Maybee:
Last summer, in United States v. Maybee
– timing-wise, the first appeal of a conviction under section 249 — the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s jury-trial conviction under section 249. Per the government’s appellate brief, the evidence at trial “established that defendant, along with two others, while driving his truck, chased a car occupied by five young Hispanic men and deliberately used his truck to repeatedly strike the victims’ car, ultimately causing the car to crash and burst into flames.” The record also contained abundant evidence that the defendant and his companions (one of whom pleaded guilty
to a section 249 charge prior to trial) used racial slurs against the victims just prior to the attack.
United States v. Hatch: Earlier this month (July 2013), in United States v. Hatch, the Tenth Circuit affirmed a conviction, upon the defendant’s guilty plea (reserving right to appeal), of conspiracy to violate the statute. According to the Court of Appeals, “In April 2010, a mentally disabled Navajo man—whom the record identifies only as ‘V.K.’—came to [a] restaurant. [Another individual] convinced V.K. to come to [his] apartment. Hatch and [a third person] later joined [them] there. At [the] apartment, the three white men drew on V.K.’s back with markers. They told him they would draw “feathers” and “native pride” but actually drew satanic and anti-homosexual images. They then shaved a swastika-shaped patch into V.K.’s hair. Finally, they heated a wire hanger on the stove and used it to brand a swastika into V.K.’s arm.” One of Hatch’s two co-defendants also was convicted upon plea of a section 249 charge; the other was convicted upon plea of conspiracy to violate this law.
In both Maybee and Hatch, the defendants argued that section 249 was unconstitutional, in that Congress lacked authority to enact the statute. Both Courts of Appeals rejected this argument, concluding that the Thirteenth Amendment conferred sufficient authority upon Congress.
United States v. Mullet: Some of you may have heard about this case, in which the defendants were charged with federal crimes for, inter alia, cutting off the beards of their foes within the Amish faith. The lead defendant, Samuel Mullet, Sr., was convicted by a jury of violating section 249, as well as other crimes. More than a dozen co-defendants also were convicted of conspiring to violate the statute.
United States v. Thompson: Here, the defendant pleaded guilty to a single section 249 count. The felony information, filed in the District of Minnesota in July 2011, alleged that Thompson struck an elderly Muslim man of Somali descent while telling him to “go back to Africa.”
United States v. Hall: A 2013 guilty plea by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Hall, an inmate in a federal prison in Texas, assaulted another inmate whom he believed was gay.
United States v. Larson: A guilty plea associated with an assault upon a Sikh cab driver in Washington state. The incident took place in October 2012; Larson entered his plea in June 2013 in the Western District of Washington.
United States v. Jenkins: This federal prosecution, brought in 2012, stemmed from the kidnapping and assault of a gay man in Kentucky. Two female defendants pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting a hate crime assault, in violation of section 249. Their two male co-defendants pled not guilty and went to trial. At trial, the men both were convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy charges, but were acquitted of the section 249 crime.
Unfortunately, I don’t know if these cases represent all section 249 prosecutions to date. I may have missed a case, especially if it led to a dismissal or acquittal (making the DOJ somewhat less enthusiastic about issuing a press release).
Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that the feds don’t file very many section 249 charges. Why? Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, civil-rights crimes can be very difficult to prove. The failure to earn convictions on the section 249 count as against the Jenkins defendants who chose to go to trial underscores the difficulty in proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, the specific intent necessary to establish a hate-crime offense. My sense is that federal prosecutors, aware of these difficulties, properly are reserving section 249 charges for relatively clear-cut cases. (Indeed, section 249 cases are so rare that the DOJ’s press releases for two different cases (Thompson and Hatch) both identified the case as the first to be brought under the Shepard-Byrd Act. Oops.) I have not read anything about the Zimmerman case that would lead me to believe that the section 249 case against him is comparably obvious, but again, I have not been following the case closely.
Turning the page, some of you who recall the federal prosecutions of the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating may wonder about the applicability of those crimes to the Zimmerman case. These offenses, 18 U.S.C. §§ 241 and 242, don’t apply to the Zimmerman matter. The first of these crimes is a conspiracy offense, and you can’t have a one-person conspiracy. Per the Department of Justice’s website, the second of these offenses “makes it a crime for a person acting under color of any law to willfully deprive a person of a right or privilege protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States,” But Zimmerman wasn’t acting under “color of law” insofar as I can tell, so I don’t think that crime would fit, either.
* An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to this subdivision as section 249(b).