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Wisconsin v. Mitchell

A FEW OPINIONS ON SENTENCING ENHANCEMENT FOR HATE CRIMES

Virginia v Black (2002 cross burning case)

This opinion is an edited version of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision [ 485 NW2d 807 (1992)]. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned this ruling and declared sentencing enhancements for bias motivated crime to be constitutional. The Wisconsin court decision is thus not the law of the land, but it is reproduced here because its three separate opinions provide an excellent vehicle for understanding the hate crime debate. (Original footnote numbers retained; the version reprinted in Criminal Justice Ethics contains additional explanatory footnotes and references to law review articles.)

CJ Ethics: more Hate Crime info

StopViolence: Hate Crimes

HEFFERNAN, CHIEF JUSTICE ( for the Majority)

ABRAHAMSON, JUSTICE
(DISSENTING)

BABLITCH, JUSTICE (DISSENTING)

Intro & Facts

OPINION: Bigots are free to think and express themselves as they wish, except that they may not engage in criminal conduct in furtherance of their beliefs. The statute ties discriminatory selection of a victim to conduct already punishable in a sufficiently tight nexus to prevent erosion of First Amendment protection of bigoted speech and ideas. OPINION: The Constitution does not protect discrimination in the selection of a victim for hiring or firing, and it does not protect discrimination in the selection of a victim for criminal activity. The penalty enhancer statute punishes more severely criminals who act with what the legislature has determined is a more depraved, antisocial intent:
OPINION: The hate crimes statute enhances the punishment of bigoted criminals because they are bigoted. The statute is directed solely at the subjective motivation of the actor - his or her prejudice. Punishment of one's thought, however repugnant the thought, is unconstitutional. 

BABLITCH, JUSTICE (DISSENTING):

Everywhere the crosses are burning,
sharp-shooting goose-steppers around every corner,
there are snipers in the schools ...
(I know you don't believe this.
You think this is nothing but faddish exaggeration. But they are not shooting at you.)

Lorna Dee Cervantes [NOTE 1]

NOTE 1: Cervantes, Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How 1, An Intelligent Well Read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races, in M. Sanchez, Contemporary Chicana Poetry 90 (1986).

The law in question is not a "hate speech" law. Nor is it really a "hate crimes" law as it has been somewhat inappropriately named. It is a law against discrimination - discrimination in the selection of a crime victim.

Today the majority decides that the same Constitution which does not protect discrimination in the marketplace does protect discrimination that takes place during the commission of a crime. Numerous federal and state laws exist which prohibit discrimination in the selection of who is to be hired, or fired, or promoted. No one seriously (at least until today) questions their constitutionality. Yet the majority today gives constitutional protection to discrimination in the selection of who is to be the victim of a crime. Both sets of laws involve discrimination, both involve victims, both involve action "because of" the victim's status.

The majority says there is a difference in the two types of laws. They are wrong. There is no support in law or logic for their position. How can the Constitution not protect discrimination in the selection of a victim for discriminatory hiring, firing, or promotional practices, and at the same time protect discrimination in the selection of a victim for criminal activity? How can the Constitution protect discrimination in the performance of an illegal act and not protect discrimination in the performance of an otherwise legal act? How can the Constitution not protect discrimination in the marketplace when the action is taken "because of' the victim's status, and at the same time protect discrimination in a street or back alley when the criminal action is taken "because of' the victim's status?

These are laws against discrimination, pure and simple. Dictionaries do not disagree on the meaning of the term discrimination: to distinguish, to differentiate, to act on the basis of prejudice. Laws forbidding discrimination in the marketplace and laws forbidding discrimination in criminal activity have a common denominator: they are triggered when a person acts "because of" the victim's protected status. These exact words appear in most, if not all antidiscrimination laws. These exact words appear in the laws before us today.

Yet the majority says one is constitutional, one is not. I submit it is pure sophistry to distinguish the two. In its effort to protect speech, the majority's constitutional pen gets too close to the trees and fails to see the forest.

The majority rationalizes their conclusion by insisting that this statute punishes bigoted thought. Not so. The The statute does not impede or punish the right of persons to have bigoted thoughts or to express themselves in a bigoted fashion or otherwise, regarding the race, religion, or other status of a person. It does attempt to limit the effects of bigotry. What the statute does punish is acting upon those thoughts. It punishes the act of discriminatory selection plus criminal conduct, not the thought or expression of bigotry. The Constitution allows a person to have bigoted thoughts and to express them, but it does not allow a person to act on them. The majority says otherwise. I disagree.

I conclude the statute in question is neither vague nor overbroad, nor does it offend equal protection. Accordingly, I dissent.

1.

Examples of shocking bias related crimes making headlines recently include:

  • They pounced on two black women walking towards a shopping centre early in the morning. One escaped and ran for help, the other was beaten, stripped nearly naked, and sprayed with lighter fluid.
  • In Kentucky this September, assailants beat a young gay man with a tire iron, locked him into a car trunk with a bunch of snapping turtles and then tried to set the car on fire.
  • Amber Jefferson, a 15 year-old high school cheerleader almost lost her life because of the fact that she has one white and one black parent. Four attackers, allegedly all white, beat her with a baseball bat and split her face open with a shard of plate glass.

Wisconsin has also not been immune from reprehensible incidents of bias related crime: Anti-Semitic attacks erupt regularly, even at such supposedly progressive, enlightened institutions as the University of Wisconsin (Madison), where a Jewish student center has been pelted with rocks and bottles and where Jewish fraternities and sororities have been vandalized. Counselors at a Madison Jewish day camp discovered that the brake linings had been cut on a bus used to transport children-fortunately before the bus was used.

In 1987, the Wisconsin legislature acted to alleviate bias related crime. The Wisconsin legislature's response was to enact sec. 939.645, Stats., which enhances the penalty a perpetrator receives if the State of Wisconsin proves that the perpetrator intentionally selected the victim because of the victim's race, religion, color, or other protected status.

I conclude that the First Amendment is not implicated in this case.

I reject the majority's and Mitchell's argument that sec. 939.645, punishes or has a chilling effect on free speech. The penalty enhancement statute is directed at the action or conduct of selecting a victim and committing a crime against that victim because of his or her protected status. The gravamen of the offense is selection, not the perpetrator's speech, thought, or even motive! The statute does not impede or punish the right of persons to have thoughts or to express themselves regarding the race, religion, or other status of a person.

The statute's concern is with criminal conduct plus purposeful selection. By enhancing the penalty, the penalty enhancer statute punishes more severely criminals who act with what the legislature has determined is a more depraved, antisocial intent: an intent not just to injure but to intentionally pick out and injure a person because of a person's protected status. The legislative concern expressed in this statute is not with the beliefs, motives, or speech of a perpetrator but with his or her action of purposeful selection plus criminal conduct.

Admittedly, the conduct prohibited by the penalty enhancer statute can be proven by an extensive combination of facts that might include words uttered by a defendant.' However, if words are used to prove the crime, the words uttered are not the subject of the statutory prohibition; rather, they are used only as circumstantial evidence to prove the intentional selection. Permitting the use of such evidence does not chill free speech. Just as words of defendants are frequently used to prove the element of intent in many crimes without violating the First Amendment, words may be used to prove the act of intentional selection. It is no more a chilling of free speech to allow words to prove the act of intentional selection in this "intentional selection" statute than it is to allow a defendant's words that he "hated John Smith and wished he were dead" to prove a defendant intentionally murdered John Smith. 

The use of speech under the penalty enhancer is not different than its use in prosecutions under antidiscrimination laws or fair housing discrimination laws. Antidiscrimination statutes often employ terms similar to those contained in the penalty enhancer. For instance, secs. 118.13, 111.321, 101.225, and 66.395, all prohibit certain conduct that occurs either "because of' or "on account of' or "on the basis of' a status of another person. Proof of violations of these statutes will often involve proof of words used by the violators. Under these statutes and the penalty enhancer, a particular action or conduct is being punished, and speech may be used to prove the conduct. Under the penalty enhancer statute, speech is simply probative of the element of intentional selection. The use of such evidence does not violate the First Amendment. The action of intentional selection is punished, and the words used by a defendant are merely evidence of an intentional selection.

Although the majority attempts to distinguish this statute and antidiscrimination statutes, its distinction is a distinction without a difference. The majority states that the penalty enhancer statute is unconstitutional because the statute does not punish only the conduct of intentional selection of a victim "[t]he statute punishes the 'because of aspect of the defendant's selection, the reason the defendant selected the victim. . . ." The majority abandons this reasoning when applied to antidiscrimination laws. The majority posits that the distinction between the penalty enhancer statute and antidiscrimination laws is that antidiscrimination laws punish only the discrimination, i.e., the refusal to hire, not the discriminatory motive. The majority forgets a key requirement of antidiscrimination statutes. Antidiscrimination statutes do not prohibit a person from not hiring someone of a protected class, they prohibit a person from not hiring someone of a protected class because or on the basis of his or her protected class. It is not, as the majority suggests, the failure to hire that is being punished, it is the failure to hire because of status. How can the majority find the penalty enhancer statute unconstitutional because it punishes the "because of' aspect of a selection process, and at the same time conclude that antidiscrimination statutes, which do the same thing, are constitutional? The majority at the least ought to answer this question.

The majority also attempts to explain its very complicated and elaborate distinction between this statute and antidiscrimination laws based on some sort of difference between subjective motivations and objective acts. Although I do not quite understand the majority's use of the terms objective and subjective in the context of this case, I interpret the majority's argument to be that this statute is unconstitutional because it punishes the subjective motivations of the actor, while discrimination statutes involve objective acts of discrimination. This is merely the same distinction without a difference referred to above. Like antidiscrimination statutes, the penalty enhancer statute involves an "objective act" - the criminal conduct, e.g., the battery, etc. Likewise, despite the majority's contentions to the contrary, under the majority's analysis antidiscrimination statutes, because they require that the act be "because of" the protected status of the victim, implicate and punish the subjective motive of the actor. For example, in disparate treatment cases (cases in which the discrimination alleged is overt discrimination as opposed to disparate impact where the practices are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation) a person simply does not violate Title VII for refusing to hire a person of a protected status. The objective act alone does not invoke the provisions of the statute. Rather, the refusal must be "because of" the victim's protected status. Assuming that the majority is correct that this statute punishes motive, it fails to explain how the enhancer is any different from antidiscrimination laws.

If one assumes that the majority is correct that the penalty enhancer punishes motive there is only one distinction between it and antidiscrimination laws. The only distinction that exists between the penalty enhancer statute and antidiscrimination statutes is that the objective acts that are punished are different in that antidiscrimination laws punish legal conduct plus bad motive and the enhancer punishes criminal conduct plus bad motive. While it is true that this is a distinction, the majority never explains why it is a distinction that matters. Why is it permissible to punish motive when it is accompanied by legal conduct and impermissible to punish motive when it is accompanied by illegal conduct. The majority does not give an answer to this question, it merely concludes that the distinction somehow makes a difference. Saying so, again and again, does not make it so.

Lastly, even assuming that the majority is correct in saying that this statute punishes motive, it has still failed to explain why punishing motive is impermissible. A recent case from the U.S. Supreme Court would seem to indicate that the majority is in error. In Dawson v. Delaware (1992), the United States Supreme Court held that "the Constitution does not erect a per se barrier to the admission of evidence concerning one's beliefs and associations at sentencing simply because those beliefs and associations are protected by the First Amendment." Although under the facts of Dawson the Court concluded that there was a First Amendment violation, its analysis lends considerable support to the conclusion that considering the perpetrator's motivations in determining the appropriate sentence is permissible. For example, in concluding that evidence that the defendant belonged to the Aryan Brotherhood was impermissibly submitted during the penalty phase of a capital case in violation of the First Amendment, the court stated:

Even if the Delaware group to which Dawson allegedly belongs is racist, those beliefs, so far as we can determine, had no relevance to the sentencing proceeding in this case. For example, the Aryan Brotherhood evidence was not tied in any way to the murder of Dawson's victim. In Barclay, on the contrary, the evidence showed that the defendant's membership in the Black Liberation Army, and his consequent desire to start a "racial war," were related to the murder of a white hitchhiker. We concluded that it was most proper for the sentencing judge to 'tak[e] into account the elements of racial hatred in this murder'. In the present case, however, the murder victim was white, as is Dawson: elements of racial hatred were therefore not involved in the killing.

The U.S. Supreme Court is clearly indicating that when racial hatred is relevant to the crime, i.e., the racial hatred is the perpetrator's reason for committing the crime, this information is completely relevant in sentencing. How then can the majority suggest that punishing motive is impermissible?

I repeat. Section 939.645, is not concerned with speech or thought. It is concerned with intentional selection. It becomes operative not just when a person's speech evinces the discriminatory selection, but rather anytime the choice of a victim from a protected class is shown to be selective rather than random, discriminating rather than indiscriminate, or designed rather than happenstance.

The penalty enhancer statute also does not seek to punish the motive of a perpetrator. Neither a perpetrator's bigoted beliefs, nor his or her motivation for intentionally selecting a victim because of a protected status are punished. Again, it is the act of selecting a victim because of his or her race, color, or etc., that is proscribed. If a perpetrator seeks out a Jewish person to physically assault, his intent is not just to injure, but to injure a Jewish person. He may be motivated by a hatred of Jewish people, a calling from God to sacrifice a Jewish person, or some other irrational motive. This law does not look to motive. This law does not look at why the perpetrator sought out a Jewish person. It looks only to whether the fact that the victim was Jewish was a substantial factor in the defendant's purposeful choice of the victim.

Similarly, under the facts of the present case, even if Mitchell could show that his motive was not a hatred of whites, his conduct would still be punishable under the statute. As the State points out, Mitchell's motive could have been to impress the group of boys that accompanied him. Nevertheless, the statute would still apply. Its focus is not on bigoted or hateful motivations. Rather, it punishes the action of intentionally selecting a victim on the basis of a protected status listed in the statute. As Mitchell himself emphasized at oral arguments, the term "hate crimes" statute is a misnomer. The crimes that fall under the statute may be motivated by many emotions; the intentional selection is what is prohibited. The statute looks at intent, and statutes are used in many ways to punish crimes differently based on the perceived seriousness of the intent of the perpetrator. For example, an intent to kill is punished greater than an intent showing utter disregard for human life. Likewise, a reckless intent is punished less than an intent showing utter disregard for human life.

Section 93 9.645, Stars., does not attempt to prohibit or punish bigotry, anti-semitism, or the like. It does attempt to limit their effects. An individual's freedom to express his or her views in writing, speech, or otherwise is not regulated or chilled by this statute. What is prohibited is the act of intentionally selecting victims because of their protected status. Why a Black or a Jewish person or any other person of a protected class was chosen as the victim is not relevant. What is relevant is that the victim is intentionally chosen because of the victim's protected status.

I conclude that sec. 939.645, Stats., legitimately regulates criminal conduct, and raises no issue under the First Amendment. It does not punish speech, thought, or even motivation, nor does it sweep within its ambit actions which are constitutionally protected as to render it unconstitutionally overbroad.

II.

Regulation of harmful conduct is a legitimate exercise of a state's power. The function of the legislature in drafting criminal laws is always to make reasoned decisions concerning the social harm of particular conduct. The criminal laws are replete with similar legislative judgements involving enhanced penalties. For example, sec. 939.63, increases the penalty for a crime if the person possesses, uses, or threatens to use a dangerous weapon. Similarly, if a person commits a crime while his or her identity is concealed, the penalty for the underlying crime may be increased under sec. 93 9.64 1. See also, sec. 939.62 (increased penalty for habitual criminality): sec. 939.621 (increased penalty for certain domestic abuse offenses); sec. 939.64 (increased penalty for committing a felony while wearing a bullet-proof garment); sec. 948.02 (sexual contact or sexual intercourse with a person who has not attained the age of 13 years is guilty of Class B felony, while sexual contact or intercourse with a person who has not attained the age of 16 is a Class C felony); sec. 940.31 (kidnapping, a Class B felony under the statute is enhanced to a Class A felony when it is committed with the intent "to cause another to transfer property in order to obtain the release of the victim 77).

There is ample evidence to support the legislature's conclusion that intentional selection of a victim from a protected class causes a greater harm to its victims as well as to society than do crimes where the victim's status is not a factor. Many commentators have discussed the widespread psychological harms caused by crimes that appear to be bias related. 

These theorists posit that bias related crimes cause injury and damage far beyond that created by similar criminal conduct which does not appear to be bias related because of their tendency to perpetuate prejudice and victimize classes of people. Crimes that appear to be based on intentional selection because of the victim's status create fear not only among those who share the victim's race, color, religion, etc; but they also threaten society in general. Reports of intentional selection, even if perhaps not motivated by bigotry, create the appearance of bigotry and hatred. These crimes breed fear, misunderstanding, misconceptions, and isolation between different classes of people. The Wisconsin legislature has attempted to hinder these crimes, not by regulating speech, thought, or even motivation, but rather by enhancing the criminal penalty for any crime, however motivated, where the perpetrator purposefully selects a victim because of a protected status. I conclude that the legislature's action was eminently reasonable and does not violate principles of equal protection.

HEFFERNAN, CHIEF JUSTICE ( for the Majority)

ABRAHAMSON, JUSTICE
(DISSENTING)

BABLITCH, JUSTICE (DISSENTING)

Intro & Facts

OPINION: Bigots are free to think and express themselves as they wish, except that they may not engage in criminal conduct in furtherance of their beliefs. The statute ties discriminatory selection of a victim to conduct already punishable in a sufficiently tight nexus to prevent erosion of First Amendment protection of bigoted speech and ideas. OPINION: The Constitution does not protect discrimination in the selection of a victim for hiring or firing, and it does not protect discrimination in the selection of a victim for criminal activity. The penalty enhancer statute punishes more severely criminals who act with what the legislature has determined is a more depraved, antisocial intent:
OPINION: The hate crimes statute enhances the punishment of bigoted criminals because they are bigoted. The statute is directed solely at the subjective motivation of the actor - his or her prejudice. Punishment of one's thought, however repugnant the thought, is unconstitutional. 

 

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