The travel history of the shears may seem like a peculiar point in the peculiar case that has focused national attention on Ohio’s Amish community. But the hate crimes law — like many other federal statutes, including health-care reform legislation — is rooted in Congress’ far-reaching power to regulate interstate commerce.
Enacted in 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was named for a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten and tortured to death by two men in 1998, and a black man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death in Texas that same year.
The act is a historic expansion of a 1968 law that federalized hate crimes directed at people due to their religion, race or nationality. The new law extends protections to people victimized because of sexual orientation, gender or disability.
In the 2009 law, Congress gave prosecutors greater latitude to bring charges in bias-motivated attacks in general, by invoking the commerce connection. The earlier law only protected victims engaged in a federally protected activity, such as going to school.
Some legal observers at the time took issue with the Congress buttressing the law with the commerce connection. To make the connection, the government must prove the crime involved interstate commerce or affected it. The commerce element allows the federal government to prosecute local crimes where it would otherwise have no jurisdiction.
“Interstate commerce has been interpreted broadly enough to make any garden-variety criminal activity a federal offense,” said Milwaukee defense lawyer David Ziemer, who wrote a critical review of the hate crimes law in 2009 in the Wisconsin Law Journal.
Regarding the interstate travel of the shears in the Amish attacks, Ziemer said, “You can make any barroom brawl into a federal crime if that’s all it takes.”
Though hate crime attackers can face any number of state charges — most states have some version of a hate crimes law — the federal statute generally carries far harsher sentences.
The Amish defendants, including sect leader Samuel Mullet, could have been charged locally with assault and other crimes, but local officials are leaving the prosecution to federal officials. The federal law carries a possible life sentence if prosecutors prove kidnapping was an element of the crime.
Prosecutors contend the attacks were motivated by revenge after a group of Amish bishops rebuffed Mullet’s excommunication of eight families. The Amish believe men should grow their beards and women should let their hair grow after marriage.