Federal Civil Rights Charges: What's the Process?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 16, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Some civil rights violations are so severe that they warrant federal criminal charges, which can be used to obtain a conviction even after a defendant has been acquitted of state criminal charges.

For example, after George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Justice Department lawyers said they were looking into "whether federal prosecution is appropriate," Reuters reports.

The process of indictment, trial, and punishment of federal civil rights offenders depends on the rights infringed upon. But here is a general overview of how the process works:

Step 1: Indictment

In order to charge a person with violating civil rights amounting to a criminal charge, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will attempt to secure an indictment under one of the following charges:

  • Conspiracy against rights -- When two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten or intimidate a person from free exercise or enjoyment of civil rights (e.g., conspiring to threaten voters).
  • Deprivation of rights under color of law -- Typically for cases in which law enforcement or other government officials use their authority to deprive a person of their civil rights (e.g., Rodney King's attackers).
  • Federally protected activities -- Used to prosecute any person who injures or intimidates a person for or from enjoying civil rights or federal facilities and benefits, including state and local privileges and benefits when the intimidation is based on race, color, or national origin (e.g., keeping persons from lunchcounters, schools, or buses because of their race).

A federal prosecutor must obtain an indictment by presenting evidence to a grand jury, which will then decide if there is sufficient evidence to bring charges.

Step 2: Trial

Just like most other federal criminal cases, a federal civil rights case is heard before a jury of 12, who will decide beyond a reasonable doubt if the defendant violated the law by allegedly infringing on the victim's civil rights.

If a defendant has previously been acquitted of a criminal charge in state court arising from the same actions, then he is still eligible to be tried for federal civil rights charges. In such a case, double jeopardy may not apply.

Jurors will be required to find each of the elements for the charges, including a finding that the civil right in question was actually violated by the defendant's actions.

Step 3: Punishment

When a unanimous jury finds a defendant guilty of a civil rights charge, the civil rights violator is eligible for punishment under federal standards.

Defendants whose civil rights violations caused a victim's death may face the death penalty, at the discretion of the federal government.

Despite whether jail time, fines, or capital punishment are imposed, a defendant who has been convicted of criminal civil rights violation may also have to fend off a civil lawsuit.

Because the burden of proof is higher in a criminal civil rights case, any civil complaint for the same conduct and rights deprivation generally results in a payout for the victim (or the victim's family), who simply has to present evidence of the certified criminal conviction.

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