Monday, October 25, 2004

ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously threw out the state’s hate-crimes law yesterday, calling it overbroad and “unconstitutionally vague.”

The court ruled 7-0 against a four-year-old law that called for stiffer penalties for crimes in which a victim is targeted because of “bias or prejudice.” But, unlike similar laws in other states, it did not specify which groups might be victims.

The decision came in the case of a white man and woman convicted of an assault on two black men in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood.

Angela Pisciotta and Christopher Botts were accused of beating two brothers, Che and Idris Golden, in 2002 while screaming racial epithets. The two later pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. The trial judge sentenced them to six years in prison, plus an additional two years under the hate-crimes law, which allowed up to five years to be added to a sentence because of crimes involving bias or prejudice.

Pisciotta and Botts appealed to the state’s highest court in April. Their attorneys argued that the hate-crimes statute should be struck down because almost any crime involving prejudice falls under its scope.

The court wrote yesterday that it “by no means” condones the “savage attack … or any conduct motivated by a bigoted or hate-filled point of view,” but that the broad language of the law didn’t pass constitutional muster.

Originally, the proposed legislation defined a hate crime as one motivated specifically by the victim’s race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation.

But after fights over the inclusion of sexual orientation, the language was removed by the Legislature and replaced with a section defining a hate crime as one in which the victim or his property is targeted because of bias or prejudice. The bill was passed in 2000.

Forty-eight states have hate-crimes laws, but Georgia’s was the only one that did not specify which groups qualified for protection.

In yesterday’s ruling, the judges wrote that the standard could be applied to every possible prejudice, “no matter how obscure, whimsical or unrelated to the victim.” It cited a rabid sports fan picking on a person wearing a competing team’s cap or a campaign worker convicted of trespassing for defacing a political opponent’s yard signs.

An attorney for Pisciotta, Brandon Lewis, said he didn’t oppose all hate-crimes laws, just Georgia’s.

“It was just terribly overbroad,” Mr. Lewis said. “It’s an absolutely needed law, it just needs to be done in a constitutional way.”

The law’s author, Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, said he would start working on a new version of the law for the upcoming legislative session, which convenes in January.

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