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Last year, a federal court convicted sixteen members of an Ohio Amish group of hate crimes. They cut the hair and shaved the beards of members of their sect who they believed weren't "Amish enough."
Though no one disputes that the defendants did, in fact, commit these assaults, on appeal to the Sixth Circuit, the question was whether the prosecution proved that the defendants committed the assaults because of the victims' religion under a federal hate crimes statute. Reversing the hate crime convictions in United States v. Miller, the Sixth Circuit said, "nope."
The federal hate crime legislation requires that a causal connection between the criminal conduct and the victim's protected status; the crime must be committed "because of" the victim's status. The "because of" language presented a problem: what's the threshold for "because of"? In torts, causality can have several thresholds: but-for, substantial factor, contributing factor, and so on.
The trial court instructed the jury that "because of" meant "significant motivating factor." The Sixth Circuit reversed on this basis. Along with the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit has interpreted criminal statutes where causation is an element of the crime to require a showing of "but-for causality," meaning that, if the victim had not been a member of the protected group, he or she would not have been the victim of the criminal act. This means that if the defense can raise any reasonable alternate motive for committing the crime, then the prosecution hasn't proven the motive element beyond a reasonable doubt.
And apparently they did. The defendants theorized that bad parenting was the motive for the assaults. The victims in this case were parents of the defendants; the defendants "resented their parents because they 'belittle[ed] [them and] . . . [a]lways put them down, never [making them feel] good enough.'" Evidence supported the contention that, years before the assaults occurred, "these feelings of resentment and disrespect grew." While beards are important to the Amish religion, the majority pointed out that "assaults involving religious symbolism do not invariably stem from religious motives."
Judge Edmund Sargus, dissenting, believed that the majority correctly established that "but for" should be the threshold of causation, but disagreed that the religion had to be the motivating factor. Calling this an "an unduly restrictive interpretation of the statute," Judge Sargus believed the statute required only that religion had to be a motivating factor, which it was. Even if the motive for the assault wasn't religious, the assault was accomplished in a decidedly religious way: "The uncontested and overwhelming evidence adduced at trial demonstrates that Defendants chose to inflict the beard and hair-cutting injuries upon the victims precisely because of the victims' religion."
Following Miller, prosecuting cases under federal hate crime legislation will get harder: membership in a protected class must be the single factor leading to the crime; if there are any other factors, then it's not a hate crime.
What do you think about requiring such a high bar for causation in hate crimes cases? Tweet us @FindLawLP.
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