The United States Constitution and federal laws establish certain rights and privileges of U.S. citizens and others residing in the country. Civil rights law developed as certain cases and controversies arose over time. These cases often involved incidents of mistreatment or deprivation of rights.
Congress has moved to strengthen protections in the law. It has enacted legislation after violence or other misconduct by discriminatory groups and organizations. So, there are federal laws that protect these rights. These laws set forth crimes for those who would violate civil rights.
Laws prohibiting conspiracy against rights seek to deter any illegal activity by hate groups and others. Such groups often operate covertly. They may try to intimidate private citizens to deprive them of their rights. Sometimes, individuals or even government officials may act, using force under the color of law, to deprive another person of the rights, privileges, or immunities promised by the Constitution or laws of the United States.
This article provides an overview of federal civil rights statutes in this area. It reviews federal crimes, including conspiracy against rights, deprivation of rights under color of law, and other such laws.
Conspiracy Against Rights
The federal crime of conspiracy against rights appears at 18 U.S.C. Section 241. This statute bans two or more persons from conspiring to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate a person's exercise or enjoyment of their civil rights. A subsection of the law also prohibits two or more persons from going in disguise on the highways or to the premises of another with the intent to prevent or hinder that person's exercise or enjoyment of their rights. The law's focus is criminal conspiracy and intent.
The crime of conspiracy against rights is a felony, punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to 10 years. If a death, kidnapping, or aggravated sexual abuse occurs (or is attempted) in the commission of this crime, penalties will increase. Under those circumstances, it is punishable by a fine, a term of years in prison (up to life imprisonment), or death.
Unlike the general federal conspiracy statute (found at 18 U.S.C. Section 371), the federal crime of conspiracy against rights does not require an overt act by the defendant. Federal prosecutors need only present evidence that the co-conspirators had an agreement and intent. This may be a tacit understanding and an intent to injure the victim's civil rights.
Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law
In many ways, our laws seek to protect our fundamental rights. However, 18 U.S. Code Section 242 provides specific federal criminal liability for those who act to deprive the rights of others under color of law.
“Color of law" is an interesting term. It refers to situations where the offender uses or appears to use the authority of a government official or office. Many cases brought under the statute involve the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers.
The statute prohibits willful conduct subjecting a person to either:
- The deprivation of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States; or
- Different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of their color, or race, than are prescribed for citizens
The crime of depriving another of rights under color of law is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and up to a year in prison. If bodily injury occurs or a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire are part of the act, the punishment is a fine, up to 10 years in prison, or both. If a death results or the conduct involves kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, or any attempt of these acts, the punishment will increase. It may then include a fine, a term of years in prison (up to life imprisonment), or death.
Who Investigates and Pursues Civil Rights Crimes?
In most circumstances, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has the authority to investigate and pursue both conspiracy against rights and other civil rights violations. If the FBI finds probable cause for a crime, it can pursue charges through prosecutors at the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The U.S. Attorney General heads the DOJ, which includes the Civil Rights Division and the Office of U.S. Attorneys. The Civil Rights Division can pursue criminal cases involving several civil rights statutes. Such cases may also proceed through the individual offices of U.S. attorneys throughout the country.
Example: The Rodney King Prosecutions
In 1991, the arrest of Rodney Glen King III, an African-American taxi driver, became the subject of state and federal court cases. A video surfaced of his beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers. This drew national media attention. The police pursued King after they claimed he evaded arrest for suspected DUI. After a police chase, his capture and beating resulted in public outrage and rioting. Many saw his mistreatment by the police as stemming from his race.
State charges against four L.A.P.D. officers for use of excessive force ended in acquittals. The 1992 L.A. riots followed news of the jury's verdicts. The federal government then brought criminal civil rights violation charges against the police officers. The case proceeded in the federal district court. Two of the officers were convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison for depriving King of his civil rights under color of law. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the judge deviated downward from the recommendations. Among other reasons for the deviation, the judge cited King's resisting arrest.
Example: The George Floyd Prosecutions
In 2020, the arrest of George Perry Floyd, Jr., an African American security guard and delivery driver, at the hands of four Minneapolis City Police Officers led to international protests. During the encounter, Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd's neck for over nine minutes, causing his death.
State charges against Chauvin included murder in the second degree. A state jury convicted him of the murder and all other charges. The state judge sentenced Chauvin to 22.5 years, which includes prison time followed by supervised release. The other three officers pled to or were found guilty of aiding and abetting manslaughter. They received lesser prison sentences.
The federal government also brought civil rights violation charges against all four officers. In 2022, the DOJ announced Chauvin's plea and conviction for violating Floyd's civil rights. The other three officers also faced sentencing after conviction at trial. The federal cases included deprivations of rights under color of law under 18 U.S.C. Section 242. Chauvin's convictions stemmed from his violating Floyd's constitutional right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a police officer. This resulted in Floyd's injury and death. Chauvin also admitted that he violated Floyd's constitutional right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law. This included Floyd's right to be free of a police officer's deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.
Other Federal Crimes Involving Violations of Civil Rights
Excessive use of force by law enforcement can often trigger public scrutiny. This may include a separate federal investigation into civil rights violations. Other federal statutes prohibiting violations of specific civil rights can also come into play. These include:
- Federally Protected Activities — 18 U.S.C. Section 245 (b)(2) — This law makes it illegal to willfully injure, intimidate, or interfere with any person, by force or threat of force because of that person's race, color, religion, or national origin while the person is patronizing a place of public accommodation, enjoying a service provided by the government, traveling in interstate commerce, or engaging in other protected activities. A federal jury convicted those who murdered Ahmaud Arbery under this law and others.
- Damage to Religious Real Property — 18 U.S.C. Section 247 — This law is also called the Church Arson Prevention Act. It bans intentional conduct aimed at damaging religious real property because of the religious nature of the property. It also prohibits obstructing or preventing a person from the free exercise of their religious beliefs. The offense must be in or affect interstate or foreign commerce.
- Hate Crimes — 18 U.S.C. Section 249 — This law is also called the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It prohibits willfully causing physical injury, or attempting to cause physical injury with a dangerous weapon when the reason for the crime stems from certain illegal purposes. These include the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of a person. They also include the actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of a person. The offense must also be in or affect interstate or foreign commerce.
Learn More About Conspiracy Against Rights
If you believe that you or someone you know has suffered a violation of their civil rights, you can seek help. The Justice Department permits you to file a complaint online.
Conspiracy against rights and color of law prosecutions can be difficult and contentious. If you've been charged with conspiracy against rights or any other federal civil rights crime, consider seeking legal advice. It may be in your best interest to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to plan the strongest defense.