The Campaign For DA

7.16.2013

That Civil Rights Law That The Feds Are Thinking About Using Against Zimmerman Is Scarier Than, Well, Zimmerman




Disclaimer: Hey, I know I'm hanging with the Right Wing on all these issues but my view is based solely on being a criminal lawyer and not politics.

When I first heard that the Justice Department was contemplating charging Zimmerman with a violation of federal civil rights law my first thought was: He's not the government. How can he violate anyone's civil rights? So I looked up the statute and discovered, wow, it applies to private citizens. The law, enacted in 2009, reads, in applicable parts . . .
Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law [meaning whether or not you work for the government], willfully causes bodily injury to any person . . .  because of the actual or perceived race [or] color . . of any person . . . shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both . . . . 
OK. That's weird. But I assumed that the statute would at least require the crime to be committed on federally protected property or, as a catch-all, have the crime impact "interstate commerce". That's what gives the federal government the power to enact criminal laws -- it's called a "federal nexus." (However, even the Supreme Court has been skeptical of using the interstate commerce clause as a justification to make private person on private person crime a federal, instead of a state, crime.) But, wow, there is no such requirement. Man, I'm stunned by that. That may be the broadest federal criminal law ever.

So, assuming the law is constitutional, Zimmerman's only defense to federal prosecution would be self-defense. Fortunately for him, that's a really, really good defense.  But I bet this is all academic.