Employment Law Daily Hate Crimes Act applies to workplace assault of gay employee
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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Hate Crimes Act applies to workplace assault of gay employee

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

If individuals are engaged in ongoing economic or commercial activity subject to congressional regulation, then Congress may prohibit violent crime that interferes with or affects such activity, including the type of bias-motivated assaults proscribed by the Hate Crimes Act.

In an apparent case of first impression in the nation’s courts, the Fourth Circuit held that the Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 can be applied to an unarmed assault of an emloyee engaged in commercial activity at his place of work. The Hate Crimes Act easily falls under Congress’s broad authority to regulate interstate commerce, the appeals court ruled, reasoning that the at-issue assault of a gay employee at an Amazon fulfillment center by a coworker “interfered” with or “affected” the preparation of packages for interstate sale and shipment (U.S. v. Hill, June 13, 2019, Wynn, J.).

Attack. An employee at an Amazon packaging facility in Virginia was caught on video approaching a coworker from behind and, without provocation or warning, repeatedly punching him in the face. The victim was hospitalized for treatment, and the workspace where the incident occurred was shut down temporarily to clean blood off the floor, but Amazon did not miss any critical packaging deadlines due to the incident because other areas of the facility absorbed the work.

Bias-related motive. The perpetrator told an Amazon investigator and a local police officer that he had attacked his coworker solely because the victim was gay and because he “disrespected him because he is a homosexual.” The Commonwealth of Virginia initially charged the perpetrator with misdemeanor assault and battery in state court, but the state prosecutor later requested that the United States assume prosecution of this case as a hate crime under the Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, in part because Virginia’s hate crime law does not cover crimes based on sexual orientation.

Initial proceedings. The misdemeanor crime was dropped, and a federal grand jury indicted the perpetrator under the Hate Crimes Act. The defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the statute—on its face and as applied to him—exceeded Congress’s power under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. The trial court agreed and dismissed the indictment, after which the government appealed. A divided panel of the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision in an unpublished opinion that directed the lower court to reinstate the indictment. The panel concluded that it was premature to address the constitutional issues because that determination likely depended on a consideration of facts that might or might not be developed at trial.

Subsequent acquittal. On remand, the government dropped its reliance on the statutory element that the offense affected interstate or foreign commerce, instead relying exclusively on the theory that the defendant’s assault of his coworker “interfered with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim [had been] engaged at the time of the incident.” After a jury found the defendant guilty, he moved for acquittal on the basis that the Hate Crimes Act was unconstitutional as applied to his assault of a coworker. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, concluding that the Hate Crimes Act as applied exceeded Congress’s Commerce Clause authority. Again, the government appealed the trial court’s ruling.

Congressional authority. In adopting the Hate Crimes Act, Congress sought to “invoke the full scope of [its] Commerce Clause power, and to ensure that hate crimes prosecutions brought under [the Act] not be mired in constitutional litigation.” To ensure that conduct criminalized under the statute would have “the requisite connection to interstate commerce,” Congress adverted to several Supreme Court decisions setting forth the outer limits of Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause. Without question, the Hate Crimes Act reflects Congress’s carefully considered judgment that the scope of the statute complies with Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause, as that authority has been understood by the Supreme Court, the appeals court found.

Parallels to Hobbs Act. In that respect, the government argued on appeal that, by “interfering” with the assault victim’s packaging and shipping of products, the defendant’s conduct substantially affected interstate commerce as that phrase has been interpreted in decisions upholding federal prosecutions for robbery and extortion under the Hobbs Act as well as arson under the applicable federal criminal law provision. Like the Hate Crimes Act, the Hobbs Act includes an interstate commerce element, which U.S. Supreme Court precedent has upheld under the Commerce Clause. Specifically, the precedent establishes that pursuant to its power under the Commerce Clause, Congress may proscribe violent conduct when such conduct interferes with or otherwise affects commerce over which Congress has jurisdiction. Hence, if individuals are engaged in ongoing economic or commercial activity subject to congressional regulation—as the Amazon employee had been at the time of the assault—then Congress also may prohibit violent crime that interferes with or affects such individuals’ ongoing economic or commercial activity, including the type of bias-motivated assaults proscribed by the Hate Crimes Act.

Requisite economic activity. In the instant case, the defendant did not dispute that Congress enjoys the authority to regulate the underlying commercial activity in which the assaulted employee had been engaged at the time of the attack. Thus, because the assaulted employee’s activity—preparing packages for interstate sale and shipment—unquestionably is an economic activity, it therefore followed as a simple matter of logic that a defendant who affects or attempts to affect even the intrastate preparation of packages for interstate sale and shipment affects or attempts to affect commerce over which the U.S. has jurisdiction.

Interference. The evidence introduced at trial provided a more-than-adequate basis for the jury to find that the Amazon employee’s assault “interfered” with or “affected” the preparation of packages for interstate sale and shipment and, therefore, affected commerce over which the U.S. has jurisdiction. At the time of the assault, the employee was pulling boxes and packaging them for interstate shipment. As a result of the assault, the packages prepared by the employee flew into the air and onto the ground. After the assault, Amazon closed the entire area where the employee had been working so that his blood could be cleaned off the floor. And because of the assault, the employee missed the rest of his shift, necessitating that his work be absorbed by other facility employees.

Extent of impact irrelevant. The fact that the e-commerce giant was able to absorb the impact of the employee’s absence without missing any key shipping deadlines and that the fulfillment center’s performance during the shift impacted by the assault was in-line with its performance during other shifts did not alter that determination, the appeals court advised. On the contrary, the Supreme Court repeatedly has clarified that Congress may regulate interference with commerce, even if the effect of the interference on interstate commerce in an individual case is “minimal.”

“Substantial effect” standard. Accordingly, the fact that the defendant’s assault of his coworker might have minimally impacted Amazon’s business—and interstate commerce generally—did not render his prosecution unconstitutional. Rather, it was enough that Congress could reasonably determine that the aggregate effect of assaults on individuals engaged in ongoing economic or commercial activity amounted to a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce, the appeals court said, adding that its conclusion in no way usurps the states’ authority to regulate violent crimes—including hate crimes—unrelated to ongoing interstate commerce.

Dissent. Judge G. Steven Agee disagreed with the majority’s conclusion, asserting that the defendant’s prosecution under the Hate Crimes Act was improper because, among other things, the root of the activity regulated in the case—a bias-motivated punch—is not an inherently economic activity and, as such, is not within the scope of Congress’s Commerce Clause authority.

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