Ga. Supreme Court voids hate-crimes law

Vague wording makes it unconstitutional, state's top panel rules

October 26, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA - The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state's four-year-old hate-crimes law yesterday, ruling it "unconstitutionally vague."

Justice Carol W. Hunstein wrote in the opinion that hate-crimes laws could be appropriate but that this one did not give people of ordinary intelligence a specific enough warning of what conduct to avoid.

L. David Wolfe, the lawyer for Christopher Botts, one of those appealing to the court, said, "It seems to me that most violent crimes are motivated by some sort of prejudice or bias.

"But if, in fact, there is going to be a hate-crimes statute, I think it should be well defined so the protected class is identified and known to everybody in the community."

Prosecutors said Botts and his girlfriend, Angela Pisciotta, who are white, screamed racial epithets as they beat two black brothers who had passed them as the couple panhandled in Little Five Points, a district east of downtown Atlanta known for its ethnic and cultural diversity.

Botts and Pisciotta pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and received six years in prison, and a Fulton County judge in a bench trial added two years for the hate-crimes violation. He found another participant in the beating not guilty of a hate crime.

The law required harsher sentencing for someone who "intentionally selected any victim or any property of the victim as the object of the offense because of bias or prejudice."

But by encompassing "every possible partiality or preference," the state Supreme Court said, the law could be used even against "a rabid sports fan convicted of uttering terroristic threats to a victim selected for wearing a competing team's baseball cap" or "a campaign worker convicted of trespassing for defacing a political opponent's yard signs."

It also said the law put policy decisions such as who should be protected into the hands of police officers, judges and juries, leaving it open to arbitrary interpretations.

The state had argued that the law did not need to be so specific because it was only a sentencing statute, and the aggravated assault law laid out the unlawful conduct. But the court said the hate-crimes law established a sentence for additional conduct, selecting the victim.

State Sen. Vincent D. Fort, a Democrat from Atlanta who sponsored the legislation that created the law, said he would "aggressively fight for a new law."

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