The U.S. Constitution has two amendments that protect citizens' civil rights. The 14th Amendment states it is unlawful to deprive someone of life, liberty, or property without due process, and the 4th Amendment protects people against unlawful search and seizures.
Additionally, the federal government has many laws that govern civil rights violations, such as hate crimes and police brutality. However, the prosecution's burden of proof is usually high in such cases, which is why the U.S. Justice Department is sometimes hesitant to bring charges against alleged offenders.
This does not mean it doesn't happen, though. Numerous cases have resulted in criminal charges and convictions for a wide range of offenses. If you have been arrested for a civil rights violation, you need to understand the laws and how best to protect your own rights to ensure a fair and impartial hearing. You also need to consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney as soon as possible who can evaluate your situation and help you create an effective defense.
Types of Federal Civil Rights Crimes
A complex area of law, civil rights violations fall under several statutes within Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Some of the most notable statutes are as follows:
Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act (18 U.S.C. § 249)
It's against the law to willfully injure someone, or attempt to, based on their color, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, or religion. It is also a federal crime if the offense affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within a “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
Penalties can include up to 10 years in prison. However, you can receive enhanced penalties if you kill or attempt to kill someone, kidnap them, or sexually abuse them. The law has a seven-year statute of limitations for injury but no statute of limitations if the offense results in the death of someone.
Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law (18 U.S.C. § 242)
This federal statute prohibits anyone acting under the “color of law” to willfully deprive someone of their constitutional rights or any rights protected by law. Color of law refers to the actions of any federal, state, or local officials while performing their official duties. Examples include law enforcement officers, judges, and security guards.
Federally Protected Activities (18 U.S.C. § 245)
Federal law prohibits willfully injuring, intimidating, or interfering with someone based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” when they are conducting certain activities. This includes offenses against voters, jurors, and applicants or employees of the federal government, along with participants in federally funded programs. The law also extends to students, travelers using interstate commerce, and patrons of public establishments.
Penalties for each of the two latter offenses can include prison sentences of up to a year or more. If you injure someone or use a dangerous weapon or explosives, you could receive up to 10 years in prison. If you kill someone, or if you try to kidnap them or sexually abuse them, you could receive up to life in prison or even the death penalty. All penalties include the possibility of fines.
The Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996
It is unlawful to intentionally damage, destroy, or deface any religious property or deprive someone of their “free exercise of religious beliefs.” You can receive up to a year in prison, but you can receive enhanced penalties if you injure or kill someone or if you used a dangerous weapon, fire, or explosives. The same holds if you tried to kidnap or sexually abuse someone. You can receive prison sentences of 20 to 40 years or even the death penalty.
Other statutes that govern civil rights crimes include:
- Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act – Using force or threats to prevent someone from obtaining or providing reproductive health services.
- The Federal Explosives Control Statute – Using fire or explosives to commit a felony.
- Criminal Interference with Right to Fair Housing – Using force or threats to injure, intimidate, or interfere with someone's right to housing based on their race, color, gender, or other constitutional protections.
Penalties for these crimes can include fines of up to $10,000 or more, and prison sentences can range from 6 months in jail to up to 25 years in prison, depending on whether you used a weapon or explosives or injured someone. If death results, you could receive life in prison.
Along with facing criminal penalties for hate crimes and police brutality, offenders may also face civil suits brought by the Attorney General if there is reason to believe that the violation occurred as the result of a “pattern or practice.” The Crime Control Act of 1994 includes numerous examples of violations, including:
- Excessive force
- Unlawful stops, searches, or arrests
- False arrest
- Discriminatory harassment
- Coercive sexual conduct
If warranted, the government can bring civil actions against offenders, i.e., sue them, to obtain monetary relief for victims.
Defenses for Civil Rights Violations
In order to prosecute you for a civil rights crime, the government will have to prove the following:
- You committed the offense under the “color of law.”
- You deprived the victim of rights, privileges, or immunities protected and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
For law enforcement specifically, defense options may involve qualified immunity. If you are charged with police misconduct or excessive force, for instance, you may have defenses depending on the seriousness of the crime and the threat you posed to the suspect, among others.
The facts and circumstances of your case are vital in determining your best course of action, and you need to retain an attorney who has experience defending against these types of charges.
Hire an Experienced Federal Defense Attorney
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has many years of experience defending clients against federal crimes. He can evaluate your case and advise you of your options and help you fight for your future. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.