Georgia Hate Crime Law Nixed

State’s supreme court strikes down statute as unconstitutionally vague

Georgia’s supreme court unanimously ruled on October 25 that the state’s law authorizing enhanced prison sentences for defendants convicted of “hate crimes” was unconstitutionally vague.

Unlike the hate crimes laws in virtually all the other states, including New York, Georgia’s law did not specifically identify groups to be protected under the law, instead adopting a more general sentence enhancement for crimes found to be motivated by bias or prejudice

The Georgia law was the result of a legislative compromise several years ago. Proponents of a hate crime law wanted it to cover categories typically protected, including sexual orientation. Opponents of the law vehemently objected to the inclusion of sexual orientation. The compromise was to omit specific categories, and instead state that criminal sentences would be enhanced if the jury, or, in a non-jury trial, the judge, found beyond a reasonable doubt “that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or any property of the victim as the object of the offense because of bias or prejudice.”

In the particular case before the court, Christopher Botts and Angela Prisciotta were indicted on aggravated assault charges in a case with racial overtones. After they pled guilty, there was a sentencing hearing before a judge, who concluded that the attacks expressed race bias and imposed an additional two years of prison time on top of the sentences for assault.

In appealing the extra sentence, the defendants claimed that the statute violated the First, Fifth, Eight and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as corresponding sections of the state’s constitution.

Writing for the court, Justice Carol Hunstein found that it would be constitutional to enhance prison sentences based on bias-motivated conduct, but that the Legislature had to spell things out in more detail so that “persons of ordinary intelligence” would know what the law covered. The state argued that the underlying assault statute was specific enough so that the defendants knew that what they were doing was unlawful.

Hunstein wrote that the statute “impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory applications.”

As an example, Hunstein noted that if “a rabid sports fan” threatened somebody for wearing a competing team’s baseball cap, the prosecutor could theoretically charge them with a hate crime under this statute.

At the time the law was passed, disappointed gay rights leaders in Georgia who had hoped for the inclusion of “sexual orientation” and fell just a few votes short, accepted the law as a compromise. Harry Knox, former director of Georgia Equality, a gay political group, told The New York Times, “It was the best that could be accomplished at the time. We tried to get more from the Legislature but couldn’t.”

State Senator Vincent D. Fort, one of sponsors of the legislation, claimed the decision was a partial victory, in that the court did not question the authority of the legislature to pass a hate crimes law, and vowed that a new bill with sufficient specificity would be introduced in the Legislature.

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