A Utah animal-rights activist can challenge the constitutionality of the state's hate-crimes law, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
The Denver appeals court reinstated Eric Ward's case against the state Monday, ruling he has legal standing to bring his civil lawsuit even though prosecutors dropped charges filed against him under the hate-crimes law.
The ruling reverses a decision by U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball and sends the case back to Utah's federal court.
The 10-year-old statute has been challenged in the past, with the Utah Court of Appeals and a state court judge noting the law may not be valid. But a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of the statute has not come down from any state or federal court, said Brian Barnard, Ward's attorney.
Ward was charged under the disputed statute in November 1999 after burning a mink stole outside the Magna home of the owners of a Salt Lake fur salon. Prosecutors relied upon the hate-crime law to increase Ward's disorderly conduct charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.
In his case against the statute, Ward argued he faced future prosecution under the law because he planned to continue participating in such protests.
Kimball disagreed, saying "there is no actual or well-founded fear that the challenged statute would ever be enforced against (Ward)" again.
But the 10th Circuit ruled in the opposite direction, saying it's clear Ward is indeed a target under the hate-crimes statute.
"Thus, we conclude that Ward faces a credible threat of future prosecution and suffers from an injury in the form of a 'chilling effect' on his desire to engage in First Amendment activities," the appeals court ruled.
Ward's attorney, Brian Barnard, has argued the language of the statute is unconstitutionally vague and allows for criminal prosecution against virtually anyone under the label of a "hate crime."
True hate-crimes laws are intended to enhance penalties when a crime is committed because of a victim's race, gender, sexual preference or religion, Barnard said. Utah's law, however, simply targets people who commit an offense with the intent to "intimidate or terrorize another person," which violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
A bill in the 2003 legislative session would have amended the hate-crimes law to include specific classifications of protected people and enhanced penalties for those convicted under the law. The bill failed to get out of the House.