There are two incidents that recently occurred that have brought the idea of Hate Crime to the forefront of America’s news. The first is the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by a hispanic man in Sanford Florida and the second is a killing spree by two caucasian men in Tulsa Oklahoma where five african-american people were murdered. Beyond the obvious elements that are involved in these types of cases such as physical evidence, witness testimony and investigative work lies the looming possibility that in both cases Federal “Hate Crime” charges may be leveled at the defendants.
What exactly is hate crime? According to the Federal authorities:
“A state may consider whether a crime was committed or initially considered due to an intended victim’s status in a protected class.”
Case history (Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476 (1993)) supports the idea that the reason a crime is committed can be an aggravating factor to be considered during sentencing. In other words, why a crime is committed can potentially be punishable in addition to the act itself. The reason for this opinion is stated by Chief Justice William Rehnquist on behalf of a unanimous court is as follows:
“The Court further stated that Wisconsin was within its rights to offer sentence enhancement in bias-motivated crime because it had a compelling interest in preventing the negative secondary effects of such crimes. Among these secondary effects mentioned were the increased likelihood of a bias-motivated crime to provoke retaliation, to inflict greater emotional distress on the victim, and to incite community unrest. The Court explained that these secondary effects were more than adequate reason for such a sentencing enhancement, especially if, as stated above, the law was not explicitly targeting beliefs or statements.”
I find this line of reasoning deeply concerning. It would seem that the court intends to avert a future crime by meeting out additional punishment for an already committed crime based only on what the perpetrator was thinking before/during the act. I can understand how some would think that discrimination and bias should be punished, and there are laws that do just that. If a person is marginalized from obtaining employment or bank loans based on racial, gender or other irrelevant factors the offending parties are subject to civil and criminal penalties under state and federal law, as they should be. The difference between those laws and the hate crime laws are subtle but important.
Anti-discrimination laws address direct acts of exclusion and/or denial of services based on bias, hate crime laws do not address the action taken but the intent behind them. Punishing intent is tantamount to punishing thought. Internal monologue has little to do with the material factors in a criminal case. The argument here is not about determining whether a person was acting in self-defense or if the act in question is a “crime of passion” (which I think is ridiculous and irrelevant as well). The hate crime issue is considered separately from the initial crime. As an example, if George Zimmerman is found guilty of the charges leveled at him for shooting Trayvon Martin (2nd degree murder), regardless of what his state sentence is, the Department of Justice can bring additional charges and, if found guilty, additional sentencing based solely on whether they believe him to have had racist motivations for his actions. If there is a clearer case of thought crime by our government I’ve never seen it. Federal prosecutors have no business indicting citizens of this country for their thoughts, unless of course if we are willing to throw the concept of democracy out of the picture.
As far as I’m concerned, there should be no factors which weigh in a criminal case other than actions, evidence and facts. If courts are allowed to prosecute us for our thoughts there can be no safe thoughts. Freedom means being free to be an idiot in your own mind.