The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s hate crimes law Monday, saying the measure was so broadly worded that it could even be used to prosecute a rabid sports fan for picking on somebody wearing a rival team’s cap.
The 7-0 ruling came in the case of a white man and woman convicted of beating two black men in Atlanta.
It was the first application of the 2000 law, which called for up to five extra years in prison for crimes in which the victim was chosen because of "bias or prejudice."
Forty-eight states have hate crimes laws, but Georgia’s was the only one that did not specify which groups qualified for protection.
Angela Pisciotta and Christopher Botts were accused of severely beating two brothers, Che and Idris Golden, in 2002 while screaming racial epithets. They pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, and the judge sentenced them to six years in prison, plus two years under the hate crimes law.
Their lawyers argued on appeal that the hate crimes statute should be struck down because almost any crime involving prejudice fell under its scope.
‘Obscure, whimsical or unrelated’
The high court said that it "by no means" condoned the "savage attack ... or any conduct motivated by a bigoted or hate-filled point of view." But it said the law was "unconstitutionally vague" and so broad that it could be applied to every possible prejudice.
"A rabid sports fan convicted of uttering terroristic threats to a victim selected for wearing a competing team’s baseball cap; a campaign worker convicted of trespassing for defacing a political opponent’s yard signs; a performance car fanatic convicted of stealing a Ferrari — any ‘bias or prejudice’ ... no matter how obscure, whimsical or unrelated to the victim" could be used to invoke the hate crimes law, Justice Carol Hunstein wrote.
As originally proposed, the legislation defined a hate crime as one motivated by a victim’s race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. After fights over the inclusion of sexual orientation, lawmakers removed that language and defined a hate crime only as one in which a victim or his property was targeted simply because of bias or prejudice.
"It was just terribly overbroad," said Pisciotta’s attorney, Brandon Lewis. "It’s an absolutely needed law. It just needs to be done in a constitutional way."
The law’s author, Democratic state Sen. Vincent Fort, said he would start working on a new version for the next legislative session, which convenes in January.
However, the Senate’s top Republican, President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, who loudly opposed the hate crimes bill in 2000, praised the ruling and predicted a tough fight over new legislation.
"It shouldn’t be worse for a white man to beat up a black man than for a white man to beat up a white man," Johnson said.
Monday’s decision means Pisciotta and Botts will not have to serve the extra two years.