Template:Infobox SCOTUS case Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476 (1993), was a decision of the United States Supreme Court. It is an important and noteworthy precedent pertaining to First Amendment free speech arguments for hate crime legislation. In effect, the Court ruled that a state may consider whether a crime was committed or initially considered due to an intended victim's status in a protected class.
The respondent, Todd Mitchell, was with a group of other African American individuals in an apartment complex in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Members of this group were discussing the film Mississippi Burning; in particular, a scene in which a white man beat a young black boy who was praying. According to the facts, undisputed by the respondent, in the briefs filed in lower courts, the group had discussed the scene indoors while drinking, and later moved outside the apartment complex. Outside they were joined by Mitchell and further discussed the scene. Seeing that everyone is enraged, Mitchell asked the group, "Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?"
Looking across the street, Mitchell and the group spot Gregory Reddick, a white fourteen-year old, walking home from a nearby pizza parlor. Mitchell reportedly turned to the group and remarked, "You all want to fuck somebody up? There goes a white boy; go get him." Mitchell counted to three and then pointed left and right, signaling that they should encircle him. Ten of them then took off after Reddick, most running directly at him. One person in the group kicked Reddick, knocking him to the ground. Several attackers then surrounded Reddick. They kicked, punched, and stomped on him for over five minutes. The beating left Reddick unconscious on the ground, and one of the attackers remarked that they had killed him. Another then took Reddick's British Knights sneakers and showed them off later at his apartment complex with Mitchell. The police found Reddick unconscious a short while later. He remained in a coma for four days in the hospital; the record indicates he fully recovered from all physical injuries.
In a jury trial under the Circuit Court for Kenosha County, Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery. The maximum sentence was raised to seven years imprisonment because Mitchell had selected his target based on race. This was pursuant to a Wisconsin statute (939.645) that allowed for such an increase if it could be shown that the defendant, "[i]intentionally selects the person against whom the crime... is committed... because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry of that person...." The Circuit Court sentenced Mitchell to four years imprisonment.
Mitchell appealed the decision of the Wisconsin Circuit Court, alleging that the Wisconsin statute unconstitutionally infringed upon his First Amendment rights. The appeal was rejected by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed. The Wisconsin Supreme Court claimed that the statute was a direct violation of the First Amendment because it, "punish[ed] what the legislature has deemed to be offensive thought." It rejected the State of Wisconsin's claim that the statute only punished the "conduct" in which a victim was selected, saying that it felt the law punishes the reason the defendant selected the victim. This was an important distinction to make in constitutional law, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court invoked the United States Supreme Court's ruling in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, claiming this law criminalized, "bigoted thought with which it disagrees."
Further, the Wisconsin Supreme Court claimed that the law was also unconstitutionally overbroad, reasoning that, in order to prove a person selected a victim in the prohibited manner, the state would need to introduce evidence of a person's prior speech. The court thought this would create a "chilling effect" on free speech in general, as people sought to avoid the appearance of bigotry in fear that it may be used against them in court at a later time to enhance their potential penalty. The court distinguished their opinion on this matter from antidiscrimination laws which had already been ruled constitutional, claiming that the law in question for this particular case punished the "subjective mental process" of victim selection, whereas the antidiscrimination laws upheld previously had punished "objective acts of discrimination."
Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist reasoned that, in substance, Wisconsin's law served the same purpose as federal antidiscrimination law. Whereas in R.A.V., the ordinance struck down was explicitly targeted at expression, the statute in this case was directed towards conduct that was not expressive as such, but was instead directed at violence in particular.
The Court further stated that Wisconsin was within its rights to offer sentence enhancement in bias-motivated crime because it had a compelling interest in preventing the negative secondary effects of such crimes. Among these secondary effects mentioned were the increased likelihood of a bias-motivated crime to provoke retaliation, to inflict greater emotional distress on the victim, and to incite community unrest. The Court explained that these secondary effects were more than adequate reason for such a sentencing enhancement, especially if, as stated above, the law was not explicitly targeting beliefs or statements.
Regarding the "chilling effect" argument presented by Mitchell's side, the Court stated that it "[found] no merit in this contention." The Court determined that this rationale was far too speculative in nature to merit a genuine complaint of a statute's constitutional overbreadth. Because lesser crimes such as "negligent operation of a motor vehicle" (cited in the opinion) were very unlikely to ever be racially-based, the Court stated that for this statute to be overbroad one would have to consider the prospect of a citizen actively suppressing their bigoted beliefs because they believed they could be used against him or her at a trial for a serious offense, such as burglary, battery, or murder.
Finally, the Court noted that it is relatively commonplace for a defendant's prior speech to be presented to the court as evidence. This is a tool in the judicial process, often serving a vital role in establishing the defendant's motive.
For the reasons listed above, the Court reversed the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision and remanded the case to a lower court for final proceedings.
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 508
- List of United States Supreme Court cases
- Lists of United States Supreme Court cases by volume
- List of United States Supreme Court cases by the Rehnquist Court