Friday, July 06, 2012

Mixed Motives Jury Instruction Proper in Prosecution under Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3631

In United States v. Piekarsky, Nos. 11–1567, 11–1568 (3d Cir., June 18, 2012), two of several defendants charged in the brutal beating death of a Latino American, and subsequent cover up, in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, appealed their convictions under the federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3631. The statute criminalizes conduct which interferes with, intimidates or injures an individual because of his race or ethnicity and his decision to reside in a certain area. The defendants claimed that the trial court erred by giving the jury a “mixed motives” instruction. The defendants maintained that such an instruction was legally insufficient to support a conviction under § 3631 because it allowed the jury to find them guilty based upon evidence of other motives in addition to racial animus. The Third Circuit cited other circuits to conclude that the statute’s use of the term “because” did not “connote exclusivity or predominance.” Therefore, the defendants’ possession of motives other than racial or ethnic intimidation would not render their conduct any less a violation under the Act. Consequently, the court ruled that the jury instruction for § 3631 was legally sufficient because it allowed the jury to find that the defendants possessed animus toward a protected class, and they had the specific intent to intimidate a member of that protected class from exercising his housing rights under the Fair Housing Act.

The Third Circuit also rejected the defendants’ claims that the evidence was insufficient to support their convictions. The court found that the evidence presented, which showed that the defendants hurled racial epithets immediately prior to, during and subsequent to the beating, evinced their intent to send the message that certain individuals were not welcome to reside in Shenandoah because of their race or ethnicity.

The Third Circuit also rejected the defendants’ argument that their federal prosecution violated the Double Jeopardy Clause, finding that the doctrine of Dual Sovereignty foreclosed the argument. Citing its ruling in United States v. Berry, 164 F.3d 844 (3d Cir. 1999), the court held that the “Bartkus exception” to the Dual Sovereignty rule did not apply because the defendants failed to show that state authorities acted as puppets in conducting a sham prosecution in anticipation of the federal proceedings.

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