The Georgia supreme court, in a 7-0 decision, threw out the state's hate-crimes law Monday, calling it overly broad and "unconstitutionally vague." The law, in place for just four years, had called for stiffer penalties for crimes in which a victim is chosen because of "bias or prejudice." But, unlike similar laws in other states, the law did not specify which groups might be victims. The ruling came in the case of a white man and woman convicted of an assault on two black men in Atlanta's Little Five Points neighborhood.
Angela Pisciotta and Christopher Botts were accused of beating two brothers, Che and Idris Golden, in 2002 while screaming racial epithets. The two later pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. The trial judge sentenced them to six years in prison, plus an additional two years under the hate-crimes law, which allowed up to five years to be added to a sentence because of bias or prejudice. Pisciotta and Botts appealed to the state's highest court in April. Their lawyers argued that the hate-crimes statute should be struck down because almost any crime involving prejudice falls under its scope.
The court wrote Monday that it "by no means" condones the "savage attack...or any conduct motivated by a bigoted or hate-filled point of view" but that the broad language of the law didn't pass constitutional muster. Originally, the proposed legislation defined a hate crime as one motivated specifically by the victim's race, religion, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. After fights over the inclusion of sexual orientation, the language was removed by the legislature and replaced with a section defining a hate crime as one in which the victim or his property was targeted because of bias or prejudice. The bill was passed in 2000.
Forty-eight states have hate-crimes laws, but Georgia's was the only one that did not specify which groups qualified for protection. In Monday's ruling the judges wrote that the standard could be applied to every possible prejudice, "no matter how obscure, whimsical, or unrelated to the victim." It cited a rabid sports fan picking on a person wearing a competing team's cap or a campaign worker convicted of trespassing for defacing a political opponent's yard signs. A lawyer for Pisciotta, Brandon Lewis, said he doesn't oppose all hate-crimes laws, just Georgia's. "It was just terribly overbroad," Lewis said. "It's an absolutely needed law; it just needs to be done in a constitutional way."
The law's author, Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, said he would start working on a new version of the law for the upcoming legislative session, which convenes in January. "It seemed as if they are giving a road map, a direction to revise the law, and that's what we intend to do," said Fort. He said civil rights groups are seeking federal hate-crimes indictments against Pisciotta and Botts. Lewis said it is possible they could now face federal charges, but he thought it unlikely.