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Georgia Supreme Court overturns hate crimes law

[JURIST] The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously overturned the state's hate crimes law Monday, calling it "unconstitutionally vague." Georgia's statute requires stiffer penalties when a defendant selects a victim because of bias or prejudice. In its opinion, the court wrote:

We recognize that persons of ordinary intelligence may understand the dictionary definition of the words "bias" and "prejudice." However, because of the broad signification of these words and the absence of any specific context in which a person's bias or prejudice may apply in order to narrow the construction of these concepts, we find that OCGA § 17-10-17 fails to provide fair warning of the conduct it prohibits. Unlike the statute addressed in Mitchell, supra, which singled out for enhancement specific bias-inspired conduct "thought to inflict greater individual and societal harm" based on the perceived harm that results from crimes motivated by these prejudices, e.g., the greater likelihood that bias-motivated crimes will "provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harms on their victims, and incite community unrest," id., 508 U.S. at 487-488, the broad language in OCGA § 17-10-17, by enhancing all offenses where the victim or his property was selected because of any bias or prejudice, encompasses every possible partiality or preference. 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" for or against the selected victim or property, no matter how obscure, whimsical or unrelated to the victim it may be, but for which proof beyond a reasonable doubt might exist, can serve to enhance a sentence. Absent some qualification on "bias or prejudice," OCGA § 17-10-17 is left "'so vague that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application.'" Payne v. State, 275 Ga. 181, 183 (563 SE2d 844) (2002). Accordingly, we hold that OCGA § 17-10-17 is too vague to justify the imposition of enhanced criminal punishment for its violation.
Read the full opinion [PDF] or a summary of the opinion. AP has more.

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