The other day, by a vote of 249 (59%) to 175 (41%), the U.S. House of Representatives voted to expand the scope of federal “hate crimes” to include crimes against gay people, transgender people, the mentally disabled and the physically disabled. With strong support from the White House and from Senate democrats, we expect to soon see this become law without many changes.
We frankly don’t like hate crimes, but from a jurisprudence perspective there really isn’t any problem with them. More on that below. At the same time, however, this particular bill is problematic. More on that below, as well.
The bill, H.R. 1913 (text here), imposes up to 10 years in prison if you to commit violence because you thought someone was black or gay or whatever. (It also authorizes grants of up to $100,000 per year in federal money to the various state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies. The money is to go towards investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, and programs to reduce the occurrence of hate crimes.)
In the form passed by the house, the hate crimes portion of the law would now do the following:
1. With respect to:
…A. In general.
………1) If you attempt to cause bodily injury to someone, or if you willfully cause such injury, AND
………2) If you did so with fire, a gun, a dangerous weapon, an explosive, or an incendiary, AND
………3) If you did so BECAUSE of the actual or perceived race/color/religion/national origin of the victim, THEN
………4) Your maximum sentence goes up to 10 years.
…B. If someone died or you tried to kill, or you kidnapped or tried to kidnap someone, or you also committed or tried to commit aggravated sexual abuse, THEN
………1) There is no maximum sentence, and you can get anything up to life in prison.
2. With respect to:
National Origin (again),
Gender (I guess they’re referring to biological sex, as opposed to foreign grammar),
Gender Identity, and
…A. In general.
………1) The exact same stuff as above applies, but only if you acted under any of these circumstances:
…………..a) Either you or the victim crossed state lines or a national border.
…………..b) Either you or the victim used an instrument of interstate or foreign commerce.
…………..c) You used a weapon that had traveled in interstate or foreign commerce.
…………..d) Your conduct interferes with the victim’s economic activity.
…………..e) Your conduct otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.
Finally, to forestall the criticisms that hate crime laws infringe on First Amendment rights, the statute says it shall not be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected by the Constitution. Nor to prohibit any activities protected by the Constitution.
* * * * *
So, what does this mean?
Critics of hate crimes laws, like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), say that such laws undermine the principal of equal justice for all. “Justice will now depend on the race, gender [gah!], sexual orientation, disability or other protected status of the victim,” Smith said during debate. “It will allow different penalties to be imposed for the same crime.” House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said that this “places a higher value on some lives compared to others. That is unconstitutional, and that is wrong. All life was created equally, and all life should be defended equally.”
Such criticisms miss the point, a little bit.
As written, this law does not put greater value on a victim’s life because of their race, sex, religion, or what have you. The victim’s actual status has nothing to do with it. The law doesn’t care if the person actually was black or female or Methodist — it only cares whether the offender thought so.
The focus is not on the victim. It is on the offender’s state of mind. In other words, all this law does is insert a new form of mens rea into criminal jurisprudence.
Mens rea is the legal word for an offender’s state of mind, and is almost always a crucial element of a crime. A harmful act that was committed without the requisite mental state is not going to be a crime. For the most part, society doesn’t want to punish people when they weren’t trying to do something wrong, or when they weren’t breaching any duty to be careful.
The traditional mens rea have coalesced over time into a continuum that looks something like this:
…FAULTLESS. There is no culpability here. You weren’t doing anything wrong, or you can’t be held accountable for your actions. Society doesn’t want to punish you, because it would serve no purpose. It would be mere retaliation, and that’s just not civilized. (Don’t start thinking we’re too evolved, however — we do still have STRICT LIABILITY laws, like statutory rape and certain weapon and drug possession crimes, where society couldn’t care less whether you meant to do it, or even knew that you were doing it. So we still have some holdovers from the old “eye-for-an-eye” days of punishing even mere accidents.)
…NEGLIGENT. This is the lowest level of culpability. You were supposed to be careful, and you weren’t and now someone got hurt. You weren’t trying to do anything wrong, but you did anyway, and you ought not to have. Society wants to punish you for this, but only a little. We want to make sure people are careful when they’re supposed to be. Not paying enough attention while driving, then running over a pedestrian, is a crime of negligence.
…RECKLESS. This is punished somewhat more severely. You knew what you were doing might hurt someone, but you did it anyway. Society wants to punish you more for this, because you were just indifferent to the consequences of your actions. You were putting your own interests above those of the rest of us, and someone could have gotten hurt. Shooting a gun indiscriminately out a window is reckless. Driving so fast that you can’t safely react is reckless.
…KNOWING. This is even more severe. When you were reckless, you disregarded the mere chance that something bad might happen. But when you had a pretty good reason to believe that something bad would happen — even though it’s not what you were mainly trying to accomplish — then society wants to punish you much more. Let’s say you caught your spouse cheating on you, so that Saturday night you cut their brake lines. You’re trying to kill your spouse when they take their mother to church the next morning. The resulting accident kills your mother-in-law as well. You weren’t trying to kill her, but you knew she could die as well.
…PURPOSE. This is the most severe. You were actually trying to do it. Society punishes intent the most severely of all, as it’s the most culpable of the mental states. When you severed your spouse’s brake lines in the example above, you intended to kill your spouse.
There are other mens rea out there, which sort of come at this continuum from right angles. ATTEMPT is the big one. It’s a form of intent, of purpose, but it slips in between each of the standard categories. You were trying to commit a crime, but for whatever reason it failed. If you tried to shoot a gun randomly out the window, but it jammed, you’re guilty of an attempted crime of recklessness — you intended to commit a crime with a reckless state of mind. If you tried to purposely shoot someone, but the gun jammed, you’re guilty of attempted murder, attempting to commit a crime with an intentional state of mind. Attempts aren’t punished as severely, because the state of mind is not the only reason for enhanced punishment — the events themselves also play a part in determining culpability (a fact that some on the Supreme Court seem to have forgotten).
So all “hate crimes” laws like this one do is define a new mens rea. This one does not fall within the standard continuum, however. It does not care so much whether you were negligent, reckless, knowing or purposeful. It only cares what you believed to be true of the victim, and that you acted because of that belief.
This really doesn’t even come at the continuum from right angles. It’s wholly separate and apart. It’s a one-off. It’s not even on the same piece of paper. It’s a new kind of mens rea, because it has less to do with your mental state with respect to your actions, and more to do with the reasons why you’re committing them in the first place.
But does that make this new mens rea improper? Not really. It just so happens that, over the past couple hundred years, our national culture has gradually come to consider harmful — actually harmful to society — mistreating people based on attributes beyond their control. People can’t help what color they are, or where they were born, or what religion they were raised in, or what turns them on, or whether they have Down syndrome. Mistreating them because of such things is, to modern eyes, harmful to society.
Society punishes harm to itself by criminalizing it. So it’s a simple step to criminalize mistreating people because you thought they possessed certain attributes beyond their control. That belief, the reason for the criminal act, is just a new form of mens rea, and a harmless one at that.
* * * * *
However, just because we don’t have a problem the concept of this hate crime law, that doesn’t mean we think it is a good one. In fact, there are significant problems with it.
For example, there is a real vagueness with respect to religion and national origin. On the one hand, they’re the same as race, and don’t require additional circumstances. On the other hand, they are grouped in with the new categories requiring additional circumstances. It has to be one or the other, and this vagueness could make hate crimes based on religion and national origin void, under the Rule of Lenity.
Of course, the Commerce-Clause-related circumstances could make this merely a distinction without a difference. But if it there was no difference, then why did Congress go to the effort of writing those conditions for certain victims, but not for others? A savvy defense attorney might well argue that these particular hate crimes are unenforceable.
In addition to this unnecessary vagueness, the law is also overbroad.
Let’s back up. The policy underlying this (and pretty much any other American law against discriminatory behavior) is that we don’t want people being singled out for mistreatment for reasons they have no control over. Again, people can’t help what race they are, so it’s bad to mistreat them for it. It now seems pretty clear that people can’t help what their sexual proclivities happen to be, so it’s bad to mistreat them for that as well.
But there are sexual proclivities that society still wants to punish. There are those who can only get sexual gratification from acts involving children. For the most part, they can’t help this, which is why they usually cannot be rehabilitated. So we have two competing interests here: society’s desire to protect those who can’t help being the way they are, and society’s desire to protect children from sexual predation. It should be obvious to most who read this what the policy ought to be on this. But this law doesn’t go there.
So you could have a situation where a father catches a sexual predator making moves on his young child, and beats him severely with a metal baseball bat. The act was committed primarily because of what the victim was, and it was based on his sexual orientation, so now the father is facing prosecution for a hate crime in addition to the assault.
Or you could have a religion whose believers are sworn to kill all redheads on sight. You happen to be a redhead, and members of that religion just established a temple down the street from your house. You willfully torch the temple, and someone gets hurt. Now, in addition to the arson, you’re looking at a hate crime.
These are extreme examples, to be sure. It’s not something that’s likely to happen. It merely shows that the law is inartfully written, and that it is conceivable that it could therefore be applied in ways that were not contemplated by Congress. These merely illustrate that the law could serve to protect those whom the law does not wish to protect, and penalize those whom the law did not wish to penalize.
These examples also raise a policy question as to defenses. In the first, the father could raise a defense of temporary insanity to challenge the assault claim. In the second, the arson might be challenged with perhaps a Bush-doctrine preemptive self-defense.
But is there room for such defenses in this law, the way it’s written? Temporary insanity is a defense to mens rea. It posits that the necessary mental state did not exist, because circumstances were such that the offender could not have been thinking that way. But here, the temporary insanity would be proof that the necessary mens rea did exist. It’s the result of the knowledge that the victim was a sex offender, and tends to show that the violence was inflicted because of it.
* * * * *
In short, we don’t have a legal or constitutional problem with hate crime laws. They actually seem to be a natural extension of our criminal jurisprudence. But this one seems to have been passed without anyone actually reading it (not surprising, as it hardly spend any time in committee).
An administration and the same-party majority in Congress just want to push a law through, and so they will. And they will wind up passing a law that probably doesn’t mean what they wanted it to mean, and which might not stand up under scrutiny.
So what’s new?