RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Expanding the reach of a 2009 law, the Fourth Circuit ruled Thursday that the attack of a gay man at an Amazon shipping facility qualifies as a federal hate crime.
The case goes back to May 2015, when Amazon employee James Hill confronted his co-worker Curtis Tibbs, a gay man. Hill punched Tibbs so hard it caused massive bruising.
Amazon security held Hill and called local police, who took him into custody. Hill admitted he attacked Tibbs because he “does not like homosexuals” and Tibbs “disrespected him because he is a homosexual.” Graphic video of the attack was not released to the public.
Police sought to charge Hill with a hate crime, but Virginia is one of many states that do not include sexual orientation as part of protected classes in their hate crime laws
The case was handed to the U.S. Department of Justice, which charged Hill with a federal hate crime under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The law first introduced sexual orientation into the federal government’s list of protected classes for such crimes, but parts of it require the act of violence to impact interstate commerce under the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.
The jury found Hill guilty, but his lawyers argued on appeal that the verdict was an unconstitutional expansion of the commerce clause.
U.S. District Judge John Gibney, Jr. agreed and reversed the conviction, finding that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act cannot be applied to Hill because his assault of Tibbs did not affect interstate commerce.
The commerce clause, a constitutional amendment allowing the federal government to get involved in cases which impact interstate commerce, has been used to expand federal power in controversial ways in recent decades.
“Congress can’t regulate interpersonal conduct… the jurisdictional hook is not the regulated activity. This is interpersonal violence and not regulated conduct,” Patrick L. Bryant with the Alexandria Public Defender’s Office said on behalf of Hill during oral arguments before the Fourth Circuit in March.
But Justice Department attorney Vikram Swaruup compared the attack and the application of the commerce clause to an act involving arson.
“If Hill set fire to the machine [that sorted packages] he could be charged, but in this case it was a person,” Swaruup said during the March hearing.
Siding with the federal government in a ruling released Thursday, a majority of the Fourth Circuit panel reversed the lower court and ruled that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act applies to the “unarmed assault of a victim engaged in commercial activity at his place of work.”
“When Congress may regulate an economic or commercial activity, it also may regulate violent conduct that interferes with or affects that activity,” U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn, Jr. wrote.
The judge added, “Hence, if individuals are engaged in ongoing economic or commercial activity subject to congressional regulation—as Tibbs was 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.”
Wynn, a Barack Obama appointee, was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Diana Motz, a Bill Clinton appointee.
But in a dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Agee, a George W. Bush appointee, said Hill’s attack on Tibbs was not an “inherently economic activity” and the majority interpreted the federal law too broadly.
“Congress cannot regulate all ‘commercial or other economic activity’ in which a victim is engaged because Congress cannot generally regulate all commercial and economic activities based on an unsubstantiated assumption that they will—at some level of abstraction—affect interstate commerce,” he wrote.
Agee added that Congress intended to regulate hate crimes by “criminalizing the willful infliction of bodily injury based on certain protected characteristics but through distinctively separate jurisdictional grounds of authority.”
Hill’s attorney said in a phone call that they will review the ruling and consider an appeal.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.