Irrelevant & Wrong-Headed Good Intentions: the “LEHCPA/ Matthew Shepard Bill.”
Elevating hate crimes legislation to the level of a civil rights issue, Senator Gordon Smith, Republican from Oregon, justified the LEHCPA/ Matthew Sheppard bill by intoning “What happened to Matthew should happen to no one.”
Guess what? He’s absolutely right. This is why murder is against the law. It is why Matthew Shepard’s murderers are right now serving life in prison. Note that if the LEHCPA/ Matthew Sheppard Bill were law in 1998, his attackers could still only get – you guess it: life in prison until they are dead and gone. No Congressional legislation could insure that they would get more than that.
About.com’s Gay Life writes “Why We Need LEHCPA/ Matthew Sheppard Act: Hate crimes are often more severe than other crimes. Being attacked, beaten, brutalized, murdered or harmed in any way based on who and what you are should never be tolerated.”
Gay Life is also completely 100% correct, but I would broaden the intolerance to say, “Being attacked, beaten, brutalized, murdered or harmed in any way should never be tolerated period.”
Second – if hates crimes are more severe, the law already factors in severity, e.g., from misdemeanor verbal threats (i.e., verbal assault) up to felony violent assault, e.g., assault with the intent to kill or maim.
This, then, is the defining weak link of hate crimes bills: They essentially provide extra penalties for criminals who have politically incorrect thoughts and feelings while committing a crime.
But – is it really fair that if you’re a particular kind of person, say, gay or transgendered, we should skew the law such the penalties for violence against you should be greater than the penalties for the same degree of a violent act committed against a person who is not gay or transgendered. In other words, are gay and transgender individuals deserving of greater deterrence (higher penalties) then individuals who are not gay or transgendered?
Are gay and transgendered people more likely to be attacked? Compared to whom? Non-gay and non-transgendered people? Probably – but the U.S. Department of Justice reports that teens and young adults experience the highest rates of violent crime. They report that carjackers are more likely to victimize blacks than whites. They report that from 1992-2001, American Indians experienced violence at rates more than twice that of blacks, 2 1/2 times that of whites, and 4 1/2 times that of Asian.
The point is that there’s a host of factors that can make one more or less likely to be a victim of assault, and we all, depending on time, place, and circumstance, lie somewhere along that likelihood continuum. If we are going to use greater deterrence (higher penalties) to protect those most likely to be victims of violence, it is unlikely that those living “alternative lifestyles” or those who are disabled are at the high end of that continuum.
Violent crime is already illegal: Murder, Sexual Assault, Robbery, Aggravated Assault and Assault are all decidedly wrong and against the law. The LEHCPA/ Matthew Sheppard measure, however, establishes special punishment for anyone who carries out such a crime because the victim has certain traits. It is like giving more jail time to those who assault anti-Iraq war demonstrators then those who assault pro-Iraq war demonstrators.
Finally, it is an empty gesture – back in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled against another high-minded statute, the “Violence Against Women Act.” This act would have allowed lawsuits in federal court if the victim could show that the attack occurred primarily based on gender. The reason the court gave for striking down the law was simple: The Constitution does not give Congress the power to legislate against crimes unless they are connected in some way to interstate commerce. The Supreme Court will strike down the LEHCPA/ Matthew Sheppard Act, if it becomes law, on the same grounds – it’s simply not supported by the Constitution, and there’s no way to get around that.
In sum, all else being equal, the LEHCPA/Matthew Sheppard Act factors in a victim’s special traits to determine if greater deterrence (higher penalties) is mandated. This can hardly serve the principle of “equal protection (i.e., deterrence) under the law,” and it is almost impossible to make every hate crime a federal offense because the Supreme Court has already ruled that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to legislate against crimes unless the crime somehow involves the crossing of state lines. Finally, it puts us on a slippery slope where Congress could mandate certain types of crimes federal offenses based on popular sentiment, political pressure, or worse – outright whim, such as portrayed in the satirical “ocular Penetration Act of 2007:”
“www.theonion.com/content/video/live_from_congress_the_skull” (no spaces).