What is a civil rights violation?

What is a civil rights violation?

Under Commonwealth law, a defendant can be charged with a civil rights violation a when he or she violates the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

This law states:

“No person…shall by force or threat of force, willfully injure, intimidate or interfere with, or attempt to injure, intimidate or interfere with, or oppress or threaten any other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him [or her] by the constitution or laws of the United States.”

In other words,

A person cannot:

…to:

  • Willfully injure
  • Intimidate
  • Interfere with
  • Attempt to injure
  • Intimidation attempt
  • Attempt to interfere with
  • Oppress
  • Threaten

…ANY other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him or her by EITHER:

  • The United States Constitution
  • The laws of the United States

What does the government need to show to prove someone guilty of a civil rights violation?

In order to prove a defendant guilty of the offense of a civil rights violation, the Commonwealth must prove ALL of the following elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. That the alleged victim was exercising:
  • A right
  • A privilege

…protected by EITHER:

  • The Massachusetts Constitution
  • The United States Constitution
  • The laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • The laws of the United States

2. That the defendant EITHER:

  • Injured
  • Intimidates
  • Interfered with
  • Oppressed
  • Threatened

…the exercise or enjoyment of that legally protected right by the alleged victim, OR attempted to do so.

  1. That the defendant did so by EITHER:
  • Using force
  • Threatening to use force
  • That the defendant did so willfully

What is the difference between Massachusetts civil rights law and federal civil rights law?

Civil rights law differs from federal government civil rights law in three major ways:

  1. Commonwealth law applies whether or not a defendant was acting under color of law, and therefore encompasses not only private rights secured against the government but also relations between private parties

  2. Commonwealth law:
  • Requires proof of force
  • Requires proof of threat of force
  • Is limited to certain specific prohibited acts (e.g. injure, intimidate)
  1. Commonwealth law requires that a violation have been “willful”

What does “exercise or enjoyment” of rights mean?

A person is legally considered to be exercising or enjoying a right or privilege secured by the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth or of the United States whenever:

  • Behavior is protected by ANY provision of the Massachusetts Constitution
  • That person’s behavior is protected by ANY provision of the United States Constitution
  • Person’s behavior is protected by ANY provision of federal law
  • Behavior is protected by ANY provision of state law
  • That person’s interest is protected by ANY provision of the Massachusetts Constitution
  • Interest is protected by ANY provision of the United States Constitution
  • Person’s interest is protected by ANY provision of federal law
  • That person’s interest is protected by ANY provision of state law

Remember that such a person exercising or enjoying a right or privilege exercises or enjoys that legal right whether or not he or she knows that the law guarantees him that right.

Note that “secured”in this context means (ONE OR MORE):

  • Created by
  • Arising under
  • Dependent upon

…rather than fully protected. A right can be legally “secured” against a private party although a constitution or statute only prohibits governmental interference.

What does it mean to “injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress, or threaten” another person?

To injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress, or threaten another person in the free exercise or enjoyment of a right or privilege means in general to impede or prevent the full and free benefit of that right.

Note that the alleged victim does NOT need to be completely prevented from exercising the right in question. The alleged victim only needs to be hampered in exercising it.

Here are the definitions of each of the major terms in the statute on civil rights violations:

Intimidate: to put in fear

Interfere: to hinder or meddle in the affairs of another

Oppress: to use authority or power abusively or excessively

Threaten: to express an intention to harm another person’s property; also could be defined as acts of language by which another person is placed in fear of injury or damage

This part of the offense is considered satisfied when the Commonwealth proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant negatively affected the alleged victim’s rights in ANY one of the previously described ways.

What does the government need to show to prove that a person attempts to injure, intimidate, or interfere with another person’s rights?

In order to prove that a defendant attempted to injure, intimidate, or interfere with another person’s rights, the Commonwealth must prove that:

  • The defendant took a step toward interfering with the alleged victim’s rights
  • The defendant took a step toward interfering with the alleged victim’s rights with the specific intention of interfering with those rights

Remember that neither intent alone nor making preparations is enough by itself to constitute an attempt. The Commonwealth must also prove that the defendant took an overt act designed to interfere with the alleged victim’s right and came reasonably close to doing so.

What is the legal definition of force?

Force means physical force, directed EITHER:

  • Against a person
  • Against property

But note that the amount of physical force used does NOT matter. Even a minimal amount of force is sufficient (e.g. a swift snatching of a purse).

What is a threat of force?

A threat of force is an expression of intention to use force communicated to the person threatened.

It also requires that the intention to use force also seems to ANY reasonable person standing in the place of the threatened person likely carried out.

What does it mean to act willfully?

Conviction on the offense of a civil rights violation requires the defendant acted willfully.

The defendant’s act is legally willful if:

  • With the specific purpose of interfering with the alleged victim’s enjoyment of the interests protected by the right in question
  • Because the alleged victim had exercised that right

Remember that the Commonwealth is only required to prove that the defendant acted with the particular purpose of interfering with the alleged victim’s enjoyment of the interests that are protected by that right. If he or she did so, then he or she is legally considered to have acted willfully.

Do I need to have intended on committing a civil rights violation?

Yes, specific intent is required. There are TWO determinations that constitute a specific intent crime in the circumstances of an alleged civil rights violation:

  1. A purely legal determination: Is the right at issue clearly delineated and plainly applicable under the circumstances of the case in question?
  2. A factual determination: Did the defendant commit the act in question with the particular purpose of depriving the victim of his enjoyment of the interests protected by that right?

If both requirements are met, even if the defendant did not in fact recognize the unlawfulness of his or her act, he or she will be deemed as having acted “willfully”: i.e. in reckless disregard of constitutional or statutory prohibitions of guarantees.

What are secured rights?

Secured rights protected under Massachusetts and United States civil rights law include:

Rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

“[No] State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution states that no state government can take away a person’s (ALL):

  • Life
  • Liberty
  • Property

…without due process. All people receive equal protection under the law.

Rights under Article 1 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights

“All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. Equally under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.

Article 1 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights states that all people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights. These rights include:

  • Enjoying life
  • Defending property
  • Enjoying liberty
  • Defending liberty
  • Acquire property
  • Possess property
  • Protect property
  • Seek safety
  • Obtain safety
  • Seek happiness
  • Obtain happiness

The provision also states that factors such as:

  • Sex
  • Race
  • Color
  • Creed
  • National origin

…CANNOT deny or reduce a person’s equality under the law.

Education Rights

Under federal and state law, public school students have a right to attend school and receive an education without discrimination or segregation on account of race.

Employment Rights

All persons have the same right to make and perform employment contracts. The right to work without discrimination because of race, color, religious creed, national origin, or ancestry is a right and privilege of all inhabitants of the Commonwealth.

Moreover, it is an unlawful discriminatory practice for any employer or his agents to discriminate against an applicant or employee in:

  • Compensation terms
  • Conditions of employment
  • Privileges of employment

…because of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religious creed
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Ancestry

…OR for any person to:

  • Aid
  • Abet
  • Incite
  • Compel
  • Coerce

…such discrimination.

Housing Rights

The right to:

  • Own housing
  • Rent housing
  • Occupy housing

…WITHOUT discrimination because of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin

…is guaranteed by the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The law includes the right to occupy and enjoy housing against racially motivated interference, whether by the property owners or by third persons unconnected to the property owner.

All citizens, regardless of race, have the same right to:

  • Inherit
  • Purchase
  • Lease
  • Sell
  • Hold
  • Convey

…residential property.

This means that all people of ALL races have the right to live in whichever neighborhood they wish, regardless of its racial composition.

Also, the law also states that people of ALL races have the right to associate with ALL other races as guests in homes without discrimination or interference.

Mental Patients’ Rights

A mental patient has a constitutional right to basically safe and humane living conditions, which includes protection from assaults.

Personal Security Rights

All persons have the same right to the full and equal benefit of ALL laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property.

Note that racially motivated violence violates this right.

Prisoner’s Rights

Moreover, while officials such as police or corrections officers may use reasonable force to overcome resistance by a person whom they are taking into custody or holding in custody, the constitutional right to due process includes the right NOT to be subjected to force that is:

  • Unreasonable
  • Unnecessary
  • Unprovoked

…by such officers. Arresting officers may use only such force as is reasonably necessary to affect an arrest or to defend themselves.

Note that it is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to hold and physically punish a person and thereby deprive him of liberty without due process of law.

Private Establishments Open to the Public / Public Accommodation Rights

Privately owned facilities (e.g. stores, restaurants, taverns, gas stations, theaters, arcades) which are open to the public AND which solicit or accept the patronage of the general public are also places covered by the Massachusetts Public Accommodations Law.

The Massachusetts Public Accommodations Law guarantees to all persons the full and equal use of all places of public accommodation free from ANY:

  • Distinction
  • Discrimination
  • Restriction

…on account of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religious creed
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Ancestry
  • Any physical disability
  • Any mental disability

Public facilities include places such as parks, playgrounds, government buildings, public beaches, highways, streets, and sidewalks.

Religious Exercise Rights

The right to free exercise of religionis guaranteed by Articles 2 and 3 of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution and by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

This right protects ALL of the following:

  • Religious worship
  • Practices of a religion
  • Religious meetings for the purposes of worship and/or practice
  • Ownership of buildings for religious purposes
  • Ownership of other property for religious purposes
  • Use of buildings for religious purposes
  • Use of other property for religious purposes

It protects the religious activities of ALL of the following:

  • Individuals
  • Congregations
  • Spiritual leaders

Travel Rights

Under the United States Constitution, all persons have a right to:

  • Travel freely between US states
  • Use the highways of interstate commerce to travel freely between US states
  • Use other avenues of interstate commerce in traveling freely between US states

ALL of the following are places of public accommodation under the Massachusetts Public Accommodations Law (ALL):

  • Public transportation vehicles including:
    • MBTA buses
    • Subway cars
    • Streetcars
  • Bus stops
  • Subway stations
  • Subway platforms

Voting Rights

The right to elect public officials AND to be elected to public office is guaranteed by both the United States Constitution and by Article 9 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH A CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION, AND YOU NEED AN EXPERIENCED CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER WORKING ON YOUR SIDE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, PLEASE CONTACT CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY WILLIAM J. BARABINO.

CALL 781-393-5900 TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR AVAILABLE DEFENSES.

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