Hate crime prosecutions in the new administration

A story out of West Virginia this past week reminded me of an issue that has arisen with respect to the Trump Justice Department, and, in particular, the President-Elect-to-be’s choice for Attorney General.  According to local and national news reports, a 62-year-old man has been accused of murder under West Virginia law, after he shot and killed a 15-year-old boy.  Police say that William Pulliam, who is white, shot James Means, who is African-American, after the two bumped into each other outside of a store near Charleston. Reports say that Pulliam shot Means, then had dinner and visited a friend’s home, where a firearm was found.  Pulliam claims the killing was self-defense.  Now, the United States Attorneys Office confirms it is involved in the case, investigating whether the killing might be a federal hate crime.

There is consternation among many critics of both Trump and Senator Jeff Sessions, who Trump has tapped for AG.  One of the major criticisms of a Sessions-led Justice Department, it is said, is that the DOJ will not make civil rights cases a priority.  That, presumably, could include weak enforcement of the federal hate crimes law. The Pulliam case could be an early test of this theory for the Trump DOJ.

Still, I wonder whether this particular criticism is overstated.  While I think it likely that the new administration’s Civil Rights Division will take a much different view of some civil rights matters (e.g., voting) than the current Civil Rights Division, it is also likely that a Trump Justice Department will make violent crime an enforcement priority.  Federal hate crimes under the Hate Crime Prevention Act are, by definition, violent crimes.  The Shepard-Byrd Act requires that the defendant either willfully cause bodily injury or – through use of fire, firearm, dangerous weapon, explosive or incendiary device – attempt to cause bodily injury. 18 U.S.C. 249.  Because of the double mens rea (that the act be done willfully and that it be done because of certain kinds of animus), the defendant’s state of mind is often the contested issue in the case.  I suspect that will be the issue in the Pulliam case, as well, as there seems to be no question that he used a firearm to kill Means (though there remains the issue of justification).

If the Sessions DOJ makes violent crime an enforcement priority (as I suspect it will, and should), then there is little reason to think that it will categorically refuse to enforce the Shepard-Byrd hate crimes law.  Of course, there remains the question of whether the DOJ should prosecute in cases where the state is also prosecuting, or whether the alleged act involves the kind of animus required by the statute, but those are already barriers to enforcement now.  Neither is a sticking point unique to the Trump Administration.

It is also worth noting that during the debate on the hate crimes bill, Senator Sessions proposed an amendment that would have allowed the death penalty for certain hate crimes resulting in the death of the victim.  Though some described the Sessions Amendment as a poison pill, there were – and remain – considerable arguments for making a hate crime that results in death a capital offense.  Several other criminal statutes relating to civil rights already provide for capital punishment.

There has been an understandable sensitivity to bigotry in the wake of the presidential campaign and the election.  But not every act of bigotry is a federal hate crime, detestable as the act may be.  Merely shouting offensive words, for example, is not a violation of section 249.  The statute requires a highly culpable mental state, combined with personal animus, combined with the infliction or attempted infliction of bodily injury.  And until Congress broadens the law, every Administration – Republican or Democrat – must wrestle with the limits on its enforcement.  Of course, hate crimes may also be prosecuted under Section 245, but again, there are limits: that statute’s narrow hate crime provisions are limited to injury, intimidation, or interference based only on race, color, religion, or national origin, and only with respect to certain federally protected activities.

Still, the new Trump Justice Department could help allay some of the public’s concerns if it demonstrates a proper appreciation for the virtues of the Shepard-Byrd Act, the federally protected activities statute, and the idea of treating animus-based violence as a particularly insidious form of criminality.  I am hopeful that an Attorney General Sessions and his Civil Rights Division will enforce it, sensibly, as part of a wider policy that both attacks violent crime and sustains the Department’s tradition of defending civil rights.

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