Commerce Clause

Hate Is All You Need to Federalize a Crime


Yesterday three white men from Mississippi, ranging in age from 18 to 20, pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges in connection with the June 2011 murder of James C. Anderson, a black man whom they beat and ran over with a Ford F-250 pickup truck in a Jackson parking lot. Unlike, say, Dharun Ravi's webcam peeping, this was indisputably a hate crime: Deryl Dedmon, John A. Rice, and Dylan Butler admitted they made a habit of targeting black people for harassment and assault, attacking them with beer bottles and slingshots, among other things. On the night they killed Anderson, they attended a birthday party in Puckett, Mississippi, where they decided to drive into Jackson for another racist rampage. They picked Anderson, who was stuck in the lot after locking his keys in his car, because he seemed drunk and therefore easy pickings. This despicable crime would have been subject to severe penalties regardless of motive, and one might wonder not only whether imposing extra punishment for the defendants' racism is appropriate but whether it is even possible with a crime that is already punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty. But I'd like to ask a different question: Why was this a federal case?

Mississippi, after all, has a law against murder; it even has its own hate crime statute. In fact, Dedmon, who drove the pickup truck over Anderson, was sentenced in state court on Wednesday to two life terms without the possibility of parole. (Anderson's family had asked that he not receive the death penalty.) For good measure, Dedmon is expected to receive an additional 50-year sentence in federal court. Announcing the federal guilty pleas yesterday, John Dowdy Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, praised "the swift and certain investigation by the Jackson Police Department," so evidently this was not a situation where the victim's family would have been denied justice because of local officials' apathy or inaction. Likewise, the 2009 federal law under which Dedmon, Rice, and Butler were charged is named after two murder victims, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, whose  killers were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison or death, all without the benefit of hate crime laws, state or federal.

If the practical rationale for federal intervention in this case is hard to see, the constitutional justification is nearly invisible. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act loosened the requirements for federalizing such cases to the point that the Justice Department can prosecute essentially any violent crime if it believes the victim was selected "because of" his actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Whereas before the victim had to be involved in a "federally protected" activity (such as voting or education), now even the vaguest gesture toward the Commerce Clause will do, including a victim engaged in "economic activity," a "weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce," or a crime that "otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce." The criteria are so loose that Dowdy did not even bother to mention interstate commerce (or any other federal nexus) in his indictment of Dedmon, Rice, and Butler. Let me help him out: The pickup truck was made outside of Mississippi.

Legislation like this makes a mockery of constitutional limits on federal authority, which emphatically does not include the power to prosecute violent crimes based on the perpetrator's bigoted motivation. And although the Supreme Court's doctrine of "dual sovereignty" says serial prosecutions for the same actions in state and federal court do not constitute double jeopardy, let's be honest: They do, and absurdly piling a 50-year sentence on top of two life terms is the least of the problems posed by that reality. The federal hate crime law means the Justice Department can (and does) prosecute people it believes were wrongly acquitted (or insufficiently punished) the first time around, a decision that is bound to be influenced by political considerations. Imagine what might happen, for instance, if a Florida jury acquits George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin because it accepts his self-defense claim. Would the Justice Department (which is already looking into the case) accept that result, or would it allege a racist motive and try, try again?

NEXT: A. Barton Hinkle on Democrats' Hypocritical Embrace of Super PACs

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. this was indisputably a hate crime

    What the fuck?!?!

    Hate crimes do not exist. There is only crime.

    1. A+

      A crime was committed. Charges were brought. The accused plead guilty. Sentencing was meted out. THAT IS ALL.


  2. And absurdly piling a 50-year sentence on top of two life terms is the least of the problems posed by that reality.

    But how else can the federal prosecutor get in on this and pad his resume, Jacob?

    1. Also, how would politicians otherwise express their outrage and concern?

    2. Every federal prosecutor...a wanna be district attorney/AG in training! Gotta have something to put on the campaign literature!

      1. We need a constitutional amendment preventing any government attorney from ever being allowed to serve in any other public capacity, ever.

  3. He should have been singing Kwanza hymns while he ran over black men. That would make it okay.

  4. But I'd like to ask a different question: Why was this a federal case?

    Because you don't expect Congress to just sit idly by when they could be doing something, do you?

    1. You just arent seeing the interstate commerce angle here.

      1. I LOOM LARGE!!!!

  5. Question:

    Is there any (forcible) rape that wouldn't be a hate crime?

    If not, why not?


      1. stevie's all foamed-up n shit

    2. The "me so horny" defense?

    3. Sure. L on L.

  6. Why was this a federal case?

    Because our fellow countrymen have allowed them to do this by re-electing the craven fucks, election year after election year. And doing nothing to undo the damage they've caused.

    When TEAM PURPLE partisans starts complaining about, well, anything, the state does, I just point them to the closest mirror to assign blame and then to go tell someone who gives a flying fuck.


    1. TEAM BE RULED, please.

      1. TEAM RULE ME?

        I see their actions as more of a request.

        1. "RULE ME", my friend, is not an anagram of "RED" and "BLUE."

          1. "Then how about getting with the program? Why don't you jump on the team and come on in for the big win? "

            1. "Yes sir."

              *Leaves peace sign on jacket*

    2. Because he was hating across state lines.

  7. ran over with a Ford F-250 pickup truck

    Is the make and model of the truck really a relevant detail, Jacob?

    1. Only hatecrimers drive Fords. If it had been a Government Motors vehicle the make and model would have been excluded.

    2. We really, really appreciate this detail being in the article.


  8. The federal government has become the largest concern troll in the nation. Act accordingly.

  9. Look, if walking around with a $5.00 bag of POT is a Federal Offense, should Murder also be a Federal Offense?

    1. Don't need federal murder laws.

      If a defendent fails to be convicted in state courts, the federal government can put you on trial for the ever-vague 'civil rights violations'.

      That serves two purposes: one, it lets the federal government intervene where state courts failed, two, without it being a murder charge, you avoid the ugly double-jeopardy issue.

      1. Would the Justice Department (which is already looking into the case) accept that result, or would it allege a racist motive and try, try again?


        On the day after the Simi Valley verdict, Bush issued a statement declaring that the verdict "has left us all with a deep sense of personal frustration and anguish." In a May 1 televised address to the nation, Bush all but promised a federal prosecution of the officers.

        Prosecuting the officers on the federal charge of violating King's civil rights accomplished two Bush Administration goals. The first goal was to control the rage that had developed in black communities. The second was to reduce demands from some in the civil rights community for sweeping investigations into police misconduct.

        1. The King verdict and the federal follow-up happened under Clinton, not Bush

            1. it's a point i often make

              double jeopardy is there for a reason. these types of laws are de facto violations of double jeopardy.

              USUALLY, they are used against cops (a perfect example of double standard that works against cops , not noncops USUALLY), but either way they are wrong

              when the rodney king cops were found not guilty that SHOULD have been the end of it. even if they were guilty as fuck, the govt. shouldn't get to try people twice for the same crime (and it IS the same crime, even if they give it a different name).

    2. No. Instead of doubling down on bad laws, how about just removing the original bad laws? If you want to make every crime that is worse than carrying around pot a federal crime, just about everything will be a federal crime. Not exactly a good thing.

      1. It seems like law makers rarely do this. I bet its because of the implicit assumption that they failed and it might make them look bad.

  10. I bet Robert S is beating his dick raw reading the details of this crime.

    1. He has brought shame upon all other Robert S's

  11. The federal involvement is a plot by the liberals to emphasize that Mississippi is backward and racist and would let the White people go free if it were not for the feds.

    1. That might actually true to a certain extent. Remember the murder of the civil rights workers in the 60's?

  12. I'd put that guy away for life just because of the haircut.

    1. You could send him to federal prison because the barber shop had bought its supplies in interstate commerce.

  13. Better question: Why was I asked a survey question by Google before getting to read the rest of the article? Is this a new thing? If it helps keep the site free, I'm fine with it, but that was just weird....

  14. These comments are killing me to death. Mortally! I think it's fatal.

    You'll miss me when I'm dead. You will.

  15. All Power to the Imagination!

  16. Soudns like the stupid Feds have WAY too much spare time on their hands!

  17. the obvious advantage for the feds for calling X a hate crime is they get to skirt around double jeopardy (independent sovereigns exception) for noncops, just like they do with cops

    in rodney king, they didn't get the result they wanted, so they tried the exact same offense but CALLED it something different and did so in federal court. this happens a lot to law enforcement but VERY rarely to nonlaw enforcement

    the more crimes that get federalized, the more the feds have the opportunity to stand by, observe the state trial, get lots of good discovery etc. and then they get to try THEIR case with all that extra intel.

    dual sovereignty is (imo) a complete endrun around double jeopardy

    ONE bite at the apple should mean just that.

    that's setting aside the idea that federal hate crimes violate every principle of federalism, limited federal govt, etc.

  18. Good post.You did a good work,and offer more effective imformation for us!Thank you. cheap new era hats New Era Hats

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.