The federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act applies severe criminal penalties for violent acts that are motivated by race, religion, and other protected classifications. Earlier this month, a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) concluded that the law’s terms apply to workplace assaults based on such protected status.
In U.S. v. Hill, the defendant was charged with a hate crime based on his punching a gay co-worker in the face. The defendant sought dismissal of the hate crime charge on the basis that law does not apply to such relatively minor assaults involving co-workers. In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the law does apply to such actions based on their potential impact on interstate commerce. Congress has the power to regulate activities because of the potential for disruption of commerce, no matter how minor. The dissenting judge believed that the punch was not an economic activity and had no discernible impact on interstate commerce.
This decision adds another possible avenue of recourse for employers dealing with workplace assaults. If the assault was potentially motivated by bias, either the victim or the employer could request a federal investigation and possible prosecution of the perpetrator.