There have been at least nine federal civil rights acts signed into law since the end of the Civil War, several of which were passed in the second half of the 20th century. Some create specific new offenses, while others create enhanced penalties for certain types of crimes where the motive or intent is to intimidate or prevent classes of individuals from exercising the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.
Actions Prohibited by Civil Rights Laws
There is a wide range of offenses covered by federal civil rights laws. They include the following specific crimes:
Conspiring to Prevent Someone from Exercising Constitutional Rights
Where two or more persons conspire to intimidate or otherwise prevent someone from exercising their Constitutional rights, 18 U.S.C. §241 states that they can be fined up to $250,000 and imprisoned for up to ten years. The statute also makes it a crime for two or more people to disguise themselves on a public road or on someone else's property in an effort to hinder someone from freely enjoying their rights (think Ku Klux Klan marches).
Section 241 increases the penalty to include up to life in prison or execution where there is an attempted or actual kidnapping, serious sexual abuse, or death that results from the prohibited behavior.
Efforts by Law Enforcement or Others with Legal Authority to Deprive Someone of their Constitutional Rights
Where a law enforcement official or another person having legal authority (such as a mayor, council member, judge, nursing home operator, security guard, and the like) deprives another person of their Constitutional rights or inflicts different or greater punishments on a person because of their race, color, or national origin, the perpetrator can be punished for violating 18 U.S.C. §242.
Sentences under this statute vary and range from a fine and a prison term of up to one year to a prison term of up to ten years where a dangerous weapon is used, or the target is injured, to up to life in prison or execution where there is an attempted or actual kidnapping, serious sexual abuse, or attempted or actual death that occurs as a result of the prohibited actions.
Illegal Efforts to Prevent Someone from Engaging in a Federally-Protected Activity
18 U.S.C. §245 punishes a wide range of behavior that attempts to stop or intimidate someone from taking part in a number of federally-protected activities, including voting, receiving federal benefits, applying for a federal government job, participating as a juror in federal court, or taking advantage of any program that receives federal financial assistance. This statute also makes it a crime to injure, threaten, or intimidate someone who tries to engage in a wide range of activities at the state level because of their race, skin color, religion, or national origin.
Punishments for violation of section 245 range from a fine and/or one year in prison to up to ten years in prison if bodily injury results, to up to life in prison or execution if death results or if the behavior includes attempted or actual kidnapping, serious sexual abuse, or death of the targeted individual.
Crimes Against Places of Worship
While 18 U.S.C. §247 is titled the “Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996,” the statute goes further than that. It criminalizes a wide range of destructive activity committed against religious real estate because of religious, racial, or ethnic characteristics that are connected to that property and covers defacement, damage, or destruction of the property, whether by fire or otherwise. Section 247 also punishes efforts, whether successful or not, to obstruct anyone in the free exercise of their religious beliefs.
Punishments range from a fine and up to one year in prison to up to twenty years in prison if a dangerous weapon, fire, or an explosive is used, to up to forty years in prison if fire or explosive is used and anyone is injured as a result, to life in prison or execution if death results or if there is an attempted or actual kidnapping, serious sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.
Attempts to Restrict Access to Reproductive Health Clinics or to Prevent Someone from Exercising their Right to Worship
Whether by use of force or the threat of force or by physically obstructing access, 18 U.S.C. §248 criminalizes attempts to prevent anyone from obtaining or providing reproductive health services and attempts to prevent anyone from practicing their religion. If the efforts are nonviolent, punishment is limited to a fine of up to $10,000 and up to six months in prison for a first offense and up to $25,000 and up to 18 months in prison for subsequent offenses. If injury results from the prohibited activity, the penalty increases to up to ten years in prison, and if death results, the court can impose a life sentence.
Interfering With the Right to Fair Housing
Anyone who uses force or threats of force to intimidate or interfere with anyone else's right to buy, sell, or rent any dwelling because of their race, color, religion, sex, disability, family status, or national origin violates 42 U.S.C. §3631. The statute also prohibits the use of force or threats of force against anyone who assists someone else in exercising their right to housing. It imposes a fine of up to $1000 and a prison term of up to one year or a fine of up to $10,000 and up to ten years in prison if injury results from the prohibited actions. If death results, as with other statutes, the prison sentence can be for life.
If Charged With a Civil Rights Crime, You Need the Help of an Experienced Attorney
The federal government has made it clear for well over a hundred years that one of its most important functions is to protect the civil rights of citizens and others living within the United States. If you have been charged with violating any federal civil rights law, it's a serious matter that could result in heavy fines and long prison sentences. You need the help of an experienced criminal law attorney who knows this area of law and can help you protect your own civil rights. Joseph D. Lento has the knowledge and the background to help you understand the charges against you. He has helped many other satisfied clients who faced difficult legal situations, and he and the Lento Law Firm will work with you to provide you with the strongest defense possible. Contact Joseph D. Lento today at 888.535.3686 or reach out online through the Lento Law Firm contact form.