Sentence enhancement for any “adult male [who assaults] a female”

Last week’s Webster v. Virgin Islands (V.I. Mar. 5, 2014) holds that such an enhancement unconstitutionally discriminates based on sex:

While it is undoubtedly true that the Legislature “can take into account … physical differences when classifying crimes relating to physical violence,” section 298(5) does not do this. Instead, this provision makes any assault committed by a man upon a woman an aggravated assault regardless of the physical differences between the attacker and the victim, providing no additional protections to a man assaulted by a physically stronger woman, or a woman assaulted by a physically stronger woman….

[I]f the Legislature’s objective was to take into account “physical differences when classifying crimes relating to physical violence,” this purpose would have been better served by enacting a statute that actually takes into account physical differences in classifying violent crimes. And when governmental objectives are as well-served by a sex-neutral law that does not “carr[y] with it the baggage of sexual stereotypes,” the government “cannot be permitted to classify on the basis of sex.” …

This seems clearly correct under the Supreme Court’s Equal Protection Clause jurisprudence, but note that State v. Gurganus (N.C. Ct. App. 1979) — which continues to be applied by North Carolina courts — upheld a similar statute, despite an equal protection challenge. See also State v. Wright (S.C. 2002), which upheld a statute that increased the punishment for assaults when there was “a difference in the sexes of the victim and the defendant,” and People v. Silva (Cal. Ct. App. 1994), which upheld a statute that increased the punishment for assaults on a “cohabitant of the opposite sex”; the Virgin Islands Supreme Court expressly rejected those decisions.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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