Posted by on March 09, 2015 in Blog

By Eve Soliman
Winter Intern, 2015

Approaching his final weeks in office, Attorney General Eric Holder has called for critical reforms to the U.S. criminal justice system to lower the standard of proof required for a crime to be considered a civil rights violation.  AG Holder’s announcement comes after several incendiary events in the past year which have which have increased tensions between the law enforcement and communities of color. The shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson, the absence of federal prosecution in the Trayvon Martin case due to “insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges,” and the recent murders in Chapel Hill, North Carolina punctuate the need for Holder’s reforms to the legal definitions of what constitutes a civil rights crime.

Under the current standard, federal criminal civil rights violations and hate crimes are mainly under  18 U.S.C. § 245 and 18 U.S.C. § 249 which classifies crimes committed in light of a person’s “race, color, religion, or national origin, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability” as a federal hate crime. Title 42, U.S.C., Section 14141 makes the parameters not only applicable to violent crimes but also to the excessive force, failure to keep from harm, as well as false arrest and fabrication of evidence by law enforcement and officials.

Attorney General Holder recently said that the potential changes to the standard of proof for civil rights offenses are important for strengthening hate crime laws with harsher repercussions and adopting a looser interpretation for what is considered a “deprivation of rights under color of law.” A violation under the “color of the law” is when a state or federal official makes an act appear like it’s within the scope of the law and official duties, when in fact there is no legal basis for their conduct. The expansion of what’s considered a “deprivation of rights under color of law,” would directly apply to the shooting of Brown by a Ferguson police officer. Although he plans on completing the federal investigation on the death of Michael Brown by March, there have been clues dropped by both AG Holder and federal prosecutors that it is likely no federal charges will be brought forward. The main issue posed is similar to that of the Trayvon Martin case as well as the Chapel Hill case, the difficult requirement of criminal cases to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant used excessive force with intent based on the victim’s race, religion, color, or national origin. If changes are made to the standard of proof element of civil rights cases it would drastically change the federal justice system, allowing for cases like the Martin and Brown case to be considered a civil rights crime and prosecuted as such.

The struggle for civil rights is ongoing. Holder’s proposal to lower the standard of proof for civil rights violations will transform our justice system, upholding racial justice, protecting constitutional rights of African Americans and other minority populations, as well as help reign in in the systematic abuses and discriminatory practices of law enforcement.

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