Hate Crimes, Special Victims, and the Rest of Us

The new Defense Appropriations Bill either has been or is about to be signed into law, with an amendment that places people under federal protection from those who object to their sexual orientation. I’m certainly in favor of whatever it takes to prevent atrocities like the murder of Matthew Shephard. But I’m getting uncomfortable with statutes that protect only certain groups from crimes that we should all be protected from. I just did a quick run-through of the criminal section of the Illinois Compiled Statutes, and found something like 34 categories of people who are specifically protected from homicide, battery, assault, or hate crimes.

Specifically, that’s:
peace officers
correctional officers
emergency medical technicians
persons over 60
disabled persons
teachers and school employees
unborn children
family or household members of the perpetrator
prison or jail inmates
park employees
bus or cab drivers
state or city employees on duty
sports officials and coaches
emergency management workers
utility workers
pregnant women
merchants detaining shoplifting suspects
child athletes, and
people being victimized because of their
actual or
sexual orientation
physical or mental disability, or
national origin.

Of course, I’m not including any of the specifications about: who the perpetrator is, or where or when the crime is committed. I just want to know whose life is worth more than that of the average person on the street. (And never mind, for now, that assaulting or battering anybody on the street is, by reason of that fact, aggravated.)

Most jurisdictions have similar catalogs, so far as I can tell. Certainly federal law does. I spent some years as a federal law enforcement official protected by a statute that, I think, imposed a possible death sentence on anybody who murdered me. At the time, I was handling a case in a small local jurisdiction where the mayor had recently hired the killing of the City Attorney with whom my predecessor had been negotiating, so I kind of liked having that protection. But my point, obviously, is that every such jurisdiction (except the feds, who have no generalized murder, assault, and battery statutes) supposedly bans assault and battery against anybody. So why should we need these extra protections?

As to homicide, we really don’t. Homicide statutes get enforced fairly uniformly, except for informal special considerations for Important, or at least Nice, People, as opposed to street people, prostitutes, and prison inmates, and perhaps illegal immigrants—people whom many of us believe we would all be better off without.

But as to assault and battery, we really don’t bother. Illinois apparently doesn’t have any anti-bullying statute yet, but some other jurisdictions do. Bullying mostly involves juvenile-on-juvenile conduct that also clearly constitutes assault and battery. But most of us object to “criminalizing normal youthful hijinks,” even if they would already be criminal if the victim were an adult. Adult-on-adult “simple” assault or battery, unless the victim is within one of these protected classes, or the locus of the crime is a protected place, also gets ignored.

So we have to invent 34+ protected classes of victims and roughly the same number of protected locations to notify our police and prosecutors that “we really mean it” as to those persons and localities. Then we get objections from conservatives and more sinister forces that we are granting “special rights” to some groups at the expense of others. And, unfortunately, they’re right. Some people have special rights to be protected from assault, battery, and other unpleasantries, and the rest of us don’t.

That’s not (conservatives to the contrary notwithstanding) because we value some people more than others. It’s because we cannot be bothered to recognize a general human right to be safe from assault, battery, and other usually petty crimes. We put it into our statute books, but we almost never enforce it.

And that, in turn, is because our law enforcement system doesn’t want to be hauled into every petty dispute between ordinary people. Our police and judges have been all too well trained by their mothers: “I don’t care which of you hit the other one first.
Both of you shut up and sit still, or you don’t get any TV tonight.” “Nobody likes a tattletale.” In school bullying situations, all parties are likely to get the same punishment. This discourages reporting, which is just fine with the teachers. With children, or with unimportant people in general, the point of a disciplinary system is not to do justice, or even to inculcate good habits of behavior. It is to relieve the authorities of all but the most necessary work.

For my sins, I have had to spend a great deal of time representing a couple of people who are trying to direct the attention of the law enforcement system to various infractions committed by people near and formerly dear to them. Both the police and prosecutors have told my clients repeatedly that they have unlimited official discretion not to arrest or prosecute, regardless of the enormity of the offense in question. Most of this discretion doesn’t even make its way into the statutes or the reporting of court cases, because exercise of this discretion means, by definition, that there will never be a court case. This is, we are told, essential if we are not to expend most of our gross domestic product on law enforcement. Choices have to be made. Designation of special victims and crime circumstances are the way we make those choices.

At the same time (see https://wiredsisters.wordpress.com/2009/09/11/the-flabby-arm-of-the-law/), we keep the simple assault and battery statutes, and all sorts of other statutes we have no intention of enforcing, on the books. Thus we maintain the appearance of being Nice People, while not having to pay undue attention to the ordinary behavior of ordinary people, and at the same time holding a weapon in reserve for when that behavior arouses serious public emotion. Creation of one more class of protected victim is now the standard response to any horrendous crime. Many of the laws embodying this approach memorialize the names of victims, to keep the crimes fresh in our memory, so we will continue to consider them important—Megan’s law, Amber Alerts, and so on. No doubt the most recent addition to the federal hate crimes catalog will become known, at least informally, as Matthew’s law. Which is a worthy memorial to a young man who deserved a lot better of his society. But wouldn’t it be better to take seriously the rights of all of us to be free of assault, battery, and homicide?

Jane Grey

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