An Amazon warehouse employee who beat up a coworker based on the victim’s sexual orientation couldn’t be convicted of a federal hate crime, though the jury delivered a guilty verdict. The act didn’t affect interstate commerce and, thus, was outside the scope of Congress’s authority.
Defendant James Hill worked at an Amazon fulfillment center in Chester. Shortly into one 10-hour shift, Hill approached a coworker, C.T., and punched him in the face several times without provocation. C.T. went to the hospital, missing the majority of his shift. Hill later said he assaulted C.T. because of C.T.’s sexual orientation.
Amazon shut down the area for about 30 to 45 minutes to clean blood off the floor. The assistant manager on duty testified that other areas absorbed the work, and her team didn’t miss any deadlines. Amazon performed no differently during that day’s shift than during any other shift that month, shipping about three packages late out of 48,000. The company didn’t incur any increased costs, such as overtime, to maintain its performance that day.
The Commonwealth initially charged Hill was misdemeanor assault and battery, but the prosecutor then requested that the United States assume prosecution of the case as a hate crime (Virginia’s hate-crime statute doesn’t cover sexual orientation). Hill was tried by a jury and found guilty under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, at 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2). Hill has moved for a judgment of acquittal on grounds that the Act, as applied, was an invalid exercise of Congress’s commerce power.
“Substantial effects” test
The Act can apply to Hill only if it regulates activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. The activities here do not.
The Act is not economic by its nature so as to render it constitutional. Discriminatory crimes of violence are not economic activity. Unlike the fundamentally economic nature of robbery (as regulated by the Hobbs Act), the Act regulates violence driven by hate.
Further, in passing the Act, Congress made findings regarding interstate commerce nearly identical to those found insufficient to support the Violence Against Women Act in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000). To accept these findings would allow Congress to regulate virtually any crime.
Any connection between the assault and interstate commerce is too attenuated to justify applying the Act. Hill’s assault on C.T. occurred within one state and prevented a victim from completing a work shift in which he placed items from bins into boxes. Although C.T. didn’t return to his shift, trial testimony indicated that the fulfillment center performed as usual, and other areas absorbed the work.
The Act comes closest to passing constitutional muster here through its jurisdictional element, which required the government to prove that the offense interfered with commercial activity in which the victim was engaged at the time of the offense. The jury’s finding that the government met its burden does not resolve the constitutional question of law.
If the Act applied to Hill, its reach could cover any conduct that occurs anywhere, as long as the government can show that the victim was engaged in some sort of economic activity. This approach could effectively federalize commercial property, even when the conduct – here, violence based on discriminatory animus – has no connection to the commercial nature of the premises. The Act could even extend into someone’s home if, for example, they prepared and packaged merchandise to ship out-of-state.
Similarly, Congress cannot reach conduct simply because it occurs at a place of employment. Although C.T.’s absence from the production line here presents a stronger productivity argument than in Morrison, this argument has no clear limiting principle. In any event, C.T.’s brief absence did not have a substantial effect on the broader economy.
Motion for acquittal granted.
United States v. Hill, Case No. 3:16cr9, Aug. 15, 2018. EDVA at Richmond (Gibney). VLW No. 018-3-041, 19 pp.