Georgia's hate crimes law which some Utah lawmakers sought to copy in the 2004 legislative session has been unanimously struck down by that state's Supreme Court.
In a 7-0 decision announced Monday, the court said the law was "unconstitutionally vague" because its wording did not specify which groups were to be protected under the statute. The law provides for a sentencing enhancement for crimes proven to have been committed out of bias or prejudice.
But the court said that without a specific enumeration of groups or classifications, the law could apply to almost anyone in almost any situation.
"A rabid sports fan convicted of uttering terroristic threats to a victim selected for wearing a competing team's baseball cap; a campaign worker convicted of trespassing for defacing a political opponent's yard sign . . . any 'bias or prejudice' for or against the selected victim or property, no matter how obscure, whimsical or unrelated to the victim it may be, but for which proof beyond a reasonable doubt might exist, can serve to enhance a sentence," the justices wrote.
"A statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that (persons) of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application, violates the first essential due process of law," the ruling states.
Of the 48 states with hate crimes bills, only Georgia and Utah fail to include a list of specific classifications. Several Utah lawmakers former Rep. Frank Pignanelli, the late Sen. Pete Suazo and current Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake tried to get such a bill passed, but the measure was repeatedly killed.
During the 2004 session, Utah Sen. James Evans, R-Salt Lake, proposed using the Georgia statute as a substitute to the bill proffered by Litvack, which included the classifications of race, color, disability, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry or age. Later, the two compromised on a bill that offered both the list and the clause "not to exclude any other group," which Evans said addressed his concern that a list might prove exclusionary in its specifics.
HB68 died in committee, with dissenters vehemently opposed to the list.
The Georgia ruling should help when Litvack tries to make the case for passage of a hate crimes bill in 2005, he said Tuesday.
"It's another barrier we've overcome in the sense that now the debate will be focused," said Litvack. "If you agree that there needs to be a hate crimes law in Utah, and didn't like the notion of the list, I can say, 'I know where you are coming from, but all other options are out. If we are going to do it, let's do it in the constitutionally sound way.' "
Model legislation from around the country, some of which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, includes such lists, Litvack noted.
"Every other state but Utah and Georgia have constructed hate crimes law within the confines of a list that has been validated," he said. "In a way, this is a validating experience . . . not just for hate crimes legislation but also for writing (the bill) the way we have been advocating."
Litvack's 2005 bill is already drafted and includes the compromise language. He said he may share it with Georgia Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who drafted the law thrown out by the courts Monday. The classifications in Fort's 1999 bill were eliminated through amendments.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised," Fort said of the ruling. "I fully intend to draft a new piece of legislation. It's too important to let go. I don't know what the specific language will be, whether we will enumerate the categories as we did (before), or whether we will do it another way. But we are going to do it."
The Georgia court's decision overturns the two-year enhancement portion of an eight-year sentence given to co-defendants Christopher Botts and Angela Pisciotta, who pleaded guilty to the April 2002 aggravated assault of Che and Idris Golden.
Mark Yurachek, the attorney who argued before the Georgia court on their behalf, said the 7-0 ruling carries an important message.