Site Navigation Page Content

Professor Kami Chavis Simmons publishes ‘Justice for Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson: Federal Hate Crimes Legislation and the Case for Cooperative Federalism’ in The Huffington Post

When President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act (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. Last week, the Obama administration has shown its’ willingness to exercise its authority under the law though its involvement in two tragic cases that underscore the need for federal intervention and exemplify the spirit of the law.

On March 19, the U.S Department of Justice announced that it will launch an investigation into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American youth from Sanford, Florida. Outrage gripped the nation when local police decided not to arrest Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, who claims he shot the unarmed Martin in self-defense. The Martin investigation is in its infancy, and the Justice Department has not yet decided whether it will pursue Martin’s death as a hate crime. Many of those calling for Zimmerman’s arrest, however, have voiced concerns that race, either explicitly or implicitly, played a role in the shooting. 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.

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 importa