Wednesday, March 18, 2015
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has found a section of the state's "bias intimidation" statute, NJ 2C:16-1, unconstitutional in its opinion in State v. Pomianeck. Subsection a (3) of the statute provides that bias intimidation includes an offense committed:
under circumstances that caused any victim of the underlying offense to be intimidated and the victim, considering the manner in which the offense was committed, reasonably believed either that (a) the offense was committed with a purpose to intimidate the victim or any person or entity in whose welfare the victim is interested because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity, or (b) the victim or the victim's property was selected to be the target of the offense because of the victim's race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.
The defendant was convicted of violating subsection 3. He and another public employee, both white, tricked another employee, who was black, into going into a wide steel storage cage, then locked the door, made a "banana" remark and laughed, and after a few minutes opened the cage door. The defendant was convicted of official misconduct as well as petty disorderly persons’ offenses of harassment by alarming conduct and harassment by communication, in addition to subsection (a)(3) of the bias intimidation statute.
On appeal challenging the constitutionality of subsection (a)(3) , the New Jersey appellate court found that the subsection's focus on the victim's reasonable belief - - - rather than the defendant's actual state of mind - - - was a violation of the First Amendment, relying on cases such as Virginia v. Black and R.A.V. v. St. Paul. The appellate court therefore found the statute should be construed to include a mens rea and remanded the case.
New Jersey's highest court unanimously found that the appellate court exceeded its bounds by interpreting the statute to include a mens rea. It then proceeded to the constitutional issues, noting that the first inquiry was "whether the line separating lawful from criminal conduct in subsection (a)(3) is so vague that a reasonable person would not have fair notice when that line is crossed," and thus would not meet the "due process demands of the Fourteenth Amendment.":
The answer raises interrelated First Amendment concerns. Nevertheless, only if subsection (a)(3) can survive due process scrutiny is it necessary to engage in a First Amendment analysis.
The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that subsection (a)(3) could not survive due process because it hinged on the victim's reasonable belief:
Of course, a victim’s reasonable belief about whether he has been subjected to bias may well depend on the victim’s personal experiences, cultural or religious upbringing and heritage, and reaction to language that is a flashpoint to persons of his race, religion, or nationality. A tone-deaf defendant may intend no bias in the use of crude or insensitive language, and yet a victim may reasonably perceive animus. The defendant may be wholly unaware of the victim’s perspective, due to a lack of understanding of the emotional triggers to which a reasonable person of that race, religion, or nationality would react. Nothing in the history of the bias-intimidation statute suggests that the Legislature intended to criminalize conduct through the imposition of an amorphous code of civility or criminalize speech that was not intended to intimidate on the basis of bias. It bears repeating that no other bias-intimidation statute in the nation imposes criminal liability based on the victim’s reasonable perceptions.
The court thus found subsection (a)(3) unconstitutional under due process doctrine requiring adequate notice and lack of vagueness: the defendant "was convicted not based on what he was thinking but rather on his failure to appreciate what the victim was thinking" The court therefore did not reach the First Amendment issue. The court emphasized that the "twin pillars of the bias- intimidation statute -- subsections (a)(1) and (a)(2) of N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1 -- still stand."
The ruling could also be relevant to a more famous New Jersey bias intimidation conviction of Dharun Ravi of the victim, his Rutgers roommate Tyler Clementi, as the NYT reports.