Federal Prosecutions for Civil Rights Violations

When state prosecutors fail to pursue charges for a hate crime, federal prosecutors may bring a case in federal court, using federal laws.

After George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, there was much speculation about whether he would face federal criminal charges for violating Martin’s civil rights. Although federal prosecutors ultimately decided not to file charges against Zimmerman, they have the power under federal law to criminally prosecute people who egregiously violate other people’s civil rights. For more information on the Zimmerman trial, see Mens Rea in Criminal Cases and "Stand Your Ground" New Trends in Self-Defense Law.

Both historically and today, civil rights prosecutions have provided a means for federal prosecutors to bring charges against people who have committed hate crimes, where local prosecutors lack the political will to do so. For more information on hate crimes, see Hate Crimes: Laws and Penalties and Hate Crimes That Changed History. Federal charges can also be brought against police officers or other state actors who violate a person’s civil rights. For example, federal charges were brought against the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating and two officers were convicted.

The Civil Rights Era

Federal prosecutors began using civil rights prosecutions regularly during the civil rights movement, when activists were routinely assaulted and murdered in parts of the South. One of the most famous prosecutions for a civil rights violation, recounted in the movie Mississippi Burning, followed the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, by local police and sheriff officers, as well as members of the Ku Klux Klan. After local officials refused to prosecute, federal prosecutors brought charges against the defendants for civil rights violations under 18 U.S.C. § 242, which prohibits public officials from depriving people of their constitutional and federal rights. Several defendants were convicted and sentenced to short prison terms. National outrage over this case and other similar cases led to the enactment of the first national hate crime law. (18 U.S.C. § 245.)

One the defendants, Edgar Ray Killen, was acquitted on civil rights charges but ultimately convicted in state court of manslaughter in 2005. For more information on when a person can be placed in double jeopardy (charged more than once for the same conduct), see Criminal Defendants' Rights During Trial: The Bill of Rights. It is very unusual for a crime to be prosecuted forty years later. For more information on statutes of limitations in criminal cases, see Criminal Statutes of Limitations.

Federal Hate Crime Laws

Today, the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice usually prosecutes hate crimes under two federal hate crime laws. Under 18 U.S.C. § 245, federal prosecutors can charge a person with a hate crime if the person, because of the victim’s “race, color, religion or national origin” interferes with the victim’s ability to engage in any of six federally protected activities, such as attending school.

The federal government’s power to prosecute civil rights violations has been expanded under the newest federal hate crime law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (18 U.S.C. § 249). Under section 249, it is a federal crime to cause or attempt to cause injury to any person because of the victim’s “race, color, religion, or national origin;” and it is also illegal to cause injury to any person because of his or her “religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” The law applies when the defendant, the victim, or a weapon used has traveled over state lines; or the crime has any link to or effect on interstate commerce.

So long as there is some link to interstate travel or commerce, the Shepard Act can be used to prosecute bias-motivated beatings of homosexuals in places where state law does not provide protection based on sexual orientation. For example, if a person travels from one state to another to attend a gay pride parade and is attacked after the parade by a thug yelling homophobic slurs, the thug could be prosecuted under the Shepard Act for a hate crime.

However, these are not the only laws in a federal prosecutor’s arsenal. For example, in 2010, a jury in Pennsylvania convicted two teens of violating the Fair Housing Act after they beat to death a Mexican immigrant. The jury found that the teen’s actions were motivated by their desire to keep Latinos from living in their community. Federal prosecutors have also brought charges against police officers who engage in assault while on the job, and people who engage in human trafficking and voter intimidation.

Help for Victims of Hate Crimes

If you believe you have been a victim of a hate crime, you can contact the FBI. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League also track hate and extremist groups and their websites have information and statistics on hate crimes.


Federal civil rights violations can carry stiff penalties. Violations under 18 U.S.C. § 245 that result in bodily injury are punishable by up to ten years in federal prison. If death results, then the crime is punishable by the death penalty or life imprisonment. Violations under 18 U.S.C. § 249 are punishable by as little as ten years’ or as much as life imprisonment, depending on the circumstances.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with a federal civil rights violation, you should talk to an attorney that has experience handling such cases. An experienced federal criminal defense attorney will be able to explain the law to you and help you navigate the criminal justice system and, hopefully, obtain the best possible outcome in your case.

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