Americans were horrified by the scenes of racial violence between white supremacists and counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. But one scene was particularly shocking and captured on video. A car driven by 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. plowed into a crowd of people, killing Charlottesville resident Heather D. Heyer and injuring 19 others. Fields were charged second-degree murder. But now there is an even bigger legal issue looming. The Justice Department has announced it will open a civil rights investigation into the crash. Should Fields also face hate crime charges as well as domestic terrorism? How will Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions handle the incident?
What is a Hate Crime?
It is important to understand what exactly is a hate crime. Hate crimes are generally defined as any act intended to intimidate or a terrorize a victim based on the suspect’s bias against a race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or other similar characteristics. However, hate crime laws are enforced differently in separate states. A hate crime in Salt Lake City may be prosecuted differently from a similar incident in Virginia. But a violent crime motivated by hate does not necessarily violate federal hate crime laws. In other words, simply hating something does not make it a hate crime. Federal prosecutors must prove Fields’ action was caused by a specific hatred against the victim’s race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. It will be extremely difficult to prove Fields was motivated by any of these factors. Also, hating a person for their political views does not fall under federal hate crime laws.
Was it a Terrorist Act?
Back in 1871, Congress enacted a law commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act which prohibits violence motivated by political views. Today, the illegal actions described in the law would be considered terrorism. Again, there is another huge obstacle facing prosecutors. To be considered an act of terrorism, prosecutors must prove the suspect conspired with others or plotted the attack. A spontaneous violent act does not quality. However, a provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1968 makes it a federal crime for anyone to use force to intimidate or injure another person because they are participating a peaceful assembly or lawful rally. Should a violent act occur, each count can carry a 10-year sentence. The FBI will ultimately have to decide whether to prosecute the case as an act of domestic terrorism.
Spotlight on Jeffrey Sessions
It has been well documented that Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions has been the subject of heavy criticism by President Trump for recusing himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation. President Trump has also received heavy criticism for blaming the violence on people from “all sides” instead of calling out white supremacist groups. Sessions will now face the spotlight of how the Justice Department will conduct the investigation. Prior to becoming attorney general, Sessions was a Republican senator from Alabama who drew some criticism for his record on civil rights.
Have You Been Accused of a Hate Crime in Salt Lake City? Contact the Law Offices of Matern & White for a Free Initial Consultation
Hate crimes carry harsh penalties. If you are accused of a hate crime in Utah, it can ruin your reputation resulting in the loss of a job, a huge fine and possibly spending significant time behind bars. It is vital to seek representation from an experienced and knowledgeable Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney. The legal team at White & Matern, PLLC utilizes an aggressive and comprehensive approach to help protect the rights of each client. It is part of their commitment to place clients in the best position to succeed. To learn more, contact their Salt Lake City law office today and schedule a free initial consultation today.