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October 26, 2004

The vagaries and vagueness of hate crime sentencing

Today in Botts v. Georgia, S04A0798 and Pisciotta v. Georgia, S04A0799 (Ga. Oct. 25, 2004) (available here), the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously declared "unconstitutionally vague" Georgia's hate crime penalty statute, which "requires the enhancement of criminal sentences whenever the fact finder determines 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.'"

The decision is an interesting read that gets a bit comical when the court explains that the statute's broad language, "by enhancing all offenses where the victim or his property was selected because of any bias or prejudice, encompasses every possible partiality or preference:"

A rabid sports fan convicted of uttering terroristic threats to a victim selected for wearing a competing team's baseball cap; a campaign worker convicted of trespassing for defacing a political opponent's yard signs; a performance car fanatic convicted of stealing a Ferrari -- any "bias or prejudice" for or against the selected victim or property, no matter how obscure, whimsical or unrelated to the victim it may be, but for which proof beyond a reasonable doubt might exist, can serve to enhance a sentence. Absent some qualification on "bias or prejudice," [the statute] is left so vague that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application [and] is too vague to justify the imposition of enhanced criminal punishment for its violation.

Newspaper coverage of the decision, which provides background on the statute and legislators' plans to respond to the court ruling, can be found in the NY Times and in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Though not discussed in Botts/Pisciotta ruling, the broader story of the efficacy and symbolic impact of hate crime enhancements is intriguing. Links here and here and here and here provide more background and a range of perspectives for those interested in further exploration of these issues.

October 26, 2004 at 12:09 AM | Permalink

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