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Six Questions with Wake Forest University Law Professor Kami Chavis Simmons regarding the Trayvon Martin case

Professor Kami Chavis Simmons

Professor Kami Chavis Simmons

Wake Forest University School of Law Professor Kami Simmons is a former Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure.  Professor Simmons is a national expert in police and prosecutorial accountability, and her research explores the role of the federal government in criminal justice reform. As a result, she offers a unique perspective on the criminal justice issues related to the Trayvon Martin controversy as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to investigate whether to charge George Zimmerman with a hate crime pursuant to the Matthew Shepard and  James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  She is speaking at a town hall meeting at Wake Forest University regarding the case on Thursday, March 29. A contributor to The Huffington Post, Professor Simmons frequently comments on matters related to police misconduct and corruption, prosecutorial misconduct, and racial profiling, and community policing. She can be reached for comment at 336-758-5726 or simmonkc@wfu.edu.

Q:  What are some of the legal issues surrounding the Trayvon Martin case?

A:  Although the United States has one of the best criminal justice systems in the world, this case is emblematic of the progress still needed to improve our system.  This case touches upon a number of legal issues related to substantive criminal law, police practices, civil rights, and federalism.   First, the Florida self-defense statute at issue has received a lot of attention, and I understand that there have been a number of exonerations under this statute.  Even some of the legislators who supported the bill believe authorities have misinterpreted it.  Next, this case also raises issues related to police discretion in the arrest function and whether police and prosecutors should have such unfettered discretion.    The details related to the police investigation have caused the public to lose confidence in the investigation so there are also issues of police accountability.   Loss of trust and legitimacy in the criminal justice system has wide-reaching consequences.  This distrust is especially exacerbated in some minority communities, and we have seen many observers who believe that Mr. Martin’s race played a role in the shooting, as well as the subsequent handling of the investigation by local authorities.  Finally, because the United States government has intervened in the case using a relatively new federal hate crimes statute, this raises issues regarding hate crimes statutes in general, as well as federalism and the proper  limits federal oversight.

Q: What authority allows the  U.S. Justice Department to pursue its investigation into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin?

A: The U.S. Department of Justice is exercising its authority pursuant to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA).  The late Senator Ted Kennedy had long been a champion of a federal hate crimes bill.  President Obama signed  this  law in October 2009. 

Q: How often does the U.S. Department of Justice exercise its authority of the HCPA? 

A: This week, the Obama administration has shown its’ willingness to exercise its authority under the HCPA law through its involvement in two tragic cases that underscore the need for federal intervention and exemplify the spirit of the law. Within days of its announcement in the Martin death, the Department of Justice also reported that three Mississippi teens pleaded guilty to federal hate-crimes charges in the beating death of James Craig Anderson, whom the teens admitting killing because he was African-American. Only in rare circumstances does the federal government have the ability to exercise jurisdiction over such local investigations and prosecutions, and until recently, the stringent jurisdictional limitations may have prevented federal government intervention in both these cases.  

Q:  How is the HCPA different than previous federal legislation related to hate crimes, and is this difference significant to the Trayvon Martin case?

A:  The HCPA is the game-changing piece of legislation that now grants federal government authority to assist in cases like that of Anderson and Martin.  Prior to the HPCA’s enactment, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 represented one method the federal government could use to intervene in a local crime, but gaps in the law prevented the government from prosecuting many bias-motivated crimes.  Under the Civil Rights Act, the federal government could not intervene unless victims (1) fell within a protected class (characterized by race, color, religion, or national origin) and (2) were engaged in a federal protected activity at the time of the crime (which included, among other things, enrolling in or attending any public school or public college, applying for or enjoying employment, using public accommodations, or jury participation). Neither Anderson nor Martin was participating in a federally protected activity when they were killed, and thus, the Civil Rights Act would have precluded federal intervention. The HCPA significantly expanded the federal government’s authority to prosecute defendants accused of hate crimes because it dispenses with the jurisdictional requirements that made it difficult to prosecute many hate crimes.  Victims no longer have to be engaged in protected activities in order to prosecute an offender.    The HCPA also represents an expansion of federal authority because it protects a broader class of victims than pre-existing federal hate crimes legislation.  In addition to protecting victims of violent acts based upon race, color, religion, national origin, the HCPA is the first federal legislation to protect victims of crimes where the underlying motivation was the victim’s sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.  Another important aspect of the HCPA is that it not only allows the federal government to initiate an investigation where local authorities have failed to vindicate the rights of a victim, but it allows the federal and state and local governments to work cooperatively to investigate and prosecute these crimes.  The HCPA provides much needed federal dollars to finance costly investigations required to investigate hate crimes. Federal dollars plus local knowledge may equal better investigations and more just outcomes. 

Q:  What are the essential critiques of this new federal hate crimes legislation?

A: When President Obama signed the HCPA in 2009, supporters acknowledged that the law represented an important federal denunciation of hate crimes, but simultaneously feared that the law was largely symbolic in nature. Conversely, opponents of the federal hate crimes legislation argued that federal involvement in local cases is unnecessary and subverts the principles of federalism, especially since the majority of states have enacted some form of hate-crimes legislation.  I believe the concerns about federalism are important, but overstated.  It is unnecessary, indeed impractical, for the federal government to intervene in the majority of local prosecutions, and the HCPA contains specific jurisdictional prerequisites for federal intervention.

Q:  How likely is it that Zimmerman will be charged with a federal hate crime?

A:  It is very difficult to say.  There is an extremely high evidentiary burden in proving hate crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.  Right now, it look like the only evidence of racial bias is a possible racial slur that Zimmerman may have made in the 911 call.  Some observers are questioning whether Zimmerman  uttered a slur at all or said something else.  Even if the DOJ attorneys believe that they have enough to move forward, a judge or jury hearing the case would have to determine whether prosecutors have met their burden.  Right now, it is important to gather all of the facts and to ensure that an accurate investigation occurs.