By Michael Hill
New Jersey has prided itself on having laws that no other state has. And in a unanimous ruling, the state Supreme Court just struck down a provision of one of them. A provision of the bias intimidation law that essentially determined whether a crime has been committed based on the victim’s state of mind.
The court ruled that violates the 14th Amendment. Justice Barry Albin wrote, “In focusing on the victim’s perception and not the defendant’s intent, the statute does not give a defendant sufficient guidance or notice on how to conform to the law.”
“Basically found that a statute that defines a criminal element in terms of what the victim thought is too vague and therefore violates due process and therefore leaves someone guessing as to whether their conduct crosses the line to criminal activity or not,” explained Rutgers Law School Acting Dean Ron Chen.
“A fundamental principle of our criminal justice system is that before you commit an act you know is it a crime or isn’t it a crime. When whether or not it’s a crime depends on the subjective state of mind of another person, that notice is clearly lacking,” said Lawrence Lustberg of the New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Lustberg made the winning argument that led to the court overturning a South Jersey conviction where two workers caged an African-American coworker.
The court and the lawyers looked for how this provision became law in New Jersey. No one could find it but they say it apparently was done to increase the punishment of those convicted of bias crimes.
“We really don’t know why this provision was enacted. Typically, legislatures when they see a crime that they want to address and do so through a statute will, at times, overreact and write a statute that’s overly broad,” Lustberg said.
New Jersey was the only state in the union with this kind of clause in its anti-bias law. Now the question is what impact will the court’s ruling have on other cases?
“It could have a significant impact on the Ravi case. Ravi was convicted of this provision,” said Lustberg.
Now-former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was convicted of spying by webcam on his roommate’s gay sexual encounters, charged as hate crimes and invasion of privacy.
His attorney Steve Altman says he was “ecstatic” with the high court’s decision.
The Middlesex County prosecutor took issue with that: “The conviction of Dharun Ravi still stands, and it would be inappropriate to comment further given the state’s ongoing appeal of the (30-day) sentence. Furthermore, for an attorney to describe his feelings as ‘ecstatic’ in a case involving the death of a victim, is offensive and insensitive to the victim’s loved ones; and it violates the spirit of the New Jersey crime victim’s bill of rights (n.j.s. 52:4b-36).”
The state Attorney General’s Office says it’s disappointed but because most bias-intimidation convictions include findings of guilt under the surviving subsections of the statute, the court’s opinion will not substantially impair the state’s ability to prosecute bias-intimidation generally.
Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton is president of the State Association of Prosecutors. He says he hasn’t polled his colleagues but “I am concerned about any legislation which may limit the rights of crime victims especially in an area as serious as bias crime, however I am hopeful this decision may provide some clarity as to what is required under the bias crimes statute for a successful prosecution.”
Rutgers’ acting law dean says states try to protect their citizens with such laws but always walk a constitutional tight rope when they do.
“And sometimes not every state legislature gets it right the first time,” Chen said.