United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
John A. Gibney. Jr. United States District Judge
Does a hate crime committed within one state, at one location, using only fists, affect interstate commerce? Is prosecuting that hate crime in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice? The defendant, James William Hill, III, raises these questions in his challenge to an indictment charging him with violating the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (the "HCPA" or the "Act").
To the naked eye, it may appear that the federal government can regulate and criminalize anything it wants to. The Constitution, however, grants Congress limited power to legislate. One such grant of power is the Commerce Clause, which entrusts the federal government with the power to regulate interstate commerce. Pursuant to this grant of power, Congress adopted the section of the HCPA criminalizing hate crimes based on sexual orientation. As applied to Hill, the HCPA exceeds Congress's legislative power, and the Court therefore dismisses the indictment against Hill.
Hill and the victim, C.T., both worked at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chester, Virginia. On May 22, 2015, Hill was working as a "re-binner"-moving items from various bins to cubbyholes prior to packaging-and C.T. was working as a "packer"- moving items from cubbyholes to boxes for packaging. About an hour in to their ten-hour work shifts, Hill approached C.T. without provocation and hit him several times in the face with his fists, making no statement during the assault. Afterwards neither Hill nor C.T. returned to the production line, resulting in Amazon losing productivity at both work stations for approximately nine hours. Hill later said that he hit C.T. because of C.T.'s sexual orientation.
The Commonwealth of Virginia initially charged Hill with misdemeanor assault and battery in state court. On May 29, 2015, however, the state prosecutor requested the United States to "assume prosecution of this case as a hate crime" based in part on the fact that Virginia's hate crime statute does not cover crimes based on sexual orientation. (Gov't's Resp. Ex. 2.) On July 24, 2015, the United States Attorney General certified that Hill's prosecution under the HCPA "is in the public interest and is necessary to secure substantial justice." The Commonwealth dropped the misdemeanor assault charge in favor of federal prosecution, and a federal grand jury indicted Hill under the HCPA. Hill now moves to dismiss the indictment.
Congress passed the HCPA, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 249, to punish certain hate crimes. The Act creates two distinct crimes. First, § 249(a)(1) focuses on hate crimes based on "actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin." 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(1). This offense is not at issue here. Second, § 249(a)(2) focuses on hate crimes based on "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability." 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2). Congress passed this subsection based on its power under the Commerce Clause.
To obtain a conviction under § 249(a)(2), the government must prove (1) that the defendant willfully caused bodily injury to another person, or attempted to cause bodily injury though use of a dangerous weapon; (2) that the "but-for cause" of the assault was the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim; and (3) that the conducts falls within a "circumstance described in subparagraph (B)." 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(A); see United States v. Miller, 767 F.3d 585, 594 (6th Cir. 2014). "[S]ubparagraph (B)"-relevant in this case-states as follows:
[T]he circumstances described in this subparagraph are that-
(i) the conduct . . . occurs during the course of, or as the result of, the travel of the defendant or the victim-
(I) across a State line or national border; or
(II) using a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce; (ii) the defendant uses a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce in connection with the conduct...; (iii) in connection with the conduct. . ., the defendant employs a firearm, dangerous weapon, explosive or incendiary device, or other weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce; or (iv) the conduct... -
(I) interferes with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct; or
(II) otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.
18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(B).
Finally, to "ensure the federal government will assert its . . . hate crimes jurisdiction only in a principled and properly limited fashion, " United States v. Jenkins, 909 F.Supp.2d 758, 773 (E.D. Ky. 2012) (quoting H.R. 86, 111th Cong. (1st Sess. 2009)), Congress included a certification requirement. Specifically,
No prosecution of any offense described in this subsection may be undertaken by the United States, except under the certification in writing of the Attorney General, or a designee, that-
(A) the State does not have jurisdiction;
(B) the State has requested that the Federal Government assume jurisdiction;
(C) the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in ...