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Webcam Case Conviction Game Changer for Hate Crime Prosecution, Legal Experts Say

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Legal experts say the bias crime conviction of a former Rutgers University student who used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate's sexual encounter with another man has changed the landscape of hate crimes prosecution. 

The jury found Ravi guilty of all 15 counts against him, though he was found not guilty on some subparts of the bias intimidation charges.

An Atypical Hate Crime

Legal observers who support enhanced sentences for bias-motivated crimes said the verdict still made them uncomfortable because it moved into a new territory of conduct. 

Marc Poirier of Seton Hall Law School, who writes on gender and sexuality law, said hate crimes are typically crimes of physical violence or physical threats, and elevating what Ravi did to a hate crime radically shifts what’s considered fair game for prosecutors to pursue.

“I tried using the legal databases to find any other case with facts similar to this, which had resulted in a hate crime or bias intimidation conviction, and there isn’t one that I can find,” Poirier said.

Instead, he explained, almost all hate crime prosecutions in the U.S. have involved violent or persistent acts, such as arson, cross-burning or physical attacks. He finds the expansion of hate crimes to single instances of cyberbullying troubling.

“If we have a system that criminalizes every act that causes deep fear in a targeted group, there is no way of keeping it within bounds,” Poirier said. 

Instead, he believes prosecution of hate crimes should be limited to severe, persistent acts that involve physical violence against people or physical acts which demonstrate an intent to commit violence. 

Other legal experts counter the law needs to catch up with technology, and the verdict reflects a growing opinion that that grave harm can result from harassment on the Internet.

“This is the state of New Jersey — through the prosecution — and the community, speaking through the jury, saying that we are no longer going to accept youthful stupidity as an excuse for criminal behavior,” said Louis Raveson, a professor of criminal law at Rutgers School of Law.

Rejection of the Immaturity Defense

Ravi’s lawyer had argued during trial that his client was an immature college student who did a stupid thing he should regret but not be criminally punished for.

“Immaturity is not a defense to criminal charges,” said Suzanne Goldberg, who teaches sexuality and gender law at Columbia Law School. “Sometimes, unfortunately, college students behave as though immaturity is a defense to criminal charges, and equally unfortunately, sometimes colleges and universities treat students who commit criminal acts with kid gloves.”

But some legal scholars said the punishment Ravi is facing — up to ten years in prison — feels disproportionate to the invasion of privacy the jury decided he committed.

“It would be hard for me to believe that somebody could believe that five years in prison really isn’t adequate for some types of that kind of infringement and that what we really need to do is double it to 10 years,” said NYU Law Professor James Jacobs, who is critical of all hate crimes legislation.

Unfair Choice by Prosecutors to Single Out Ravi?

Legal experts across the board believed Ravi would have never been criminally prosecuted had Clementi not killed himself. 

Ravi was not charged with causing Clementi's death, and prosecutors were not permitted to argue that the spying led to his death.

Bruce Kaplan, Middlesex County prosecutor, said his office would pursue a case like this going forward, even if suicide weren't involved.

“Regardless of whether or not the ultimate victim committed suicide, regardless of the availability of the ultimate victim, under these facts and under this evidence, we would prosecute this case again and any future cases,” said Kaplan.

Even if Ravi’s actions were handled administratively by the university, say some lawyers, it does not mean Ravi’s actions were not criminal.

“I don’t think the question is, ‘Why should they do it to Ravi?’ I think the more appropriate question is ‘Why aren’t they doing it more often in instances where the victim doesn’t take his own life?’” Rutgers’ Raveson said.

Prosecutorial Decisions As a Reflection of Public Opinion

The decision whether to bring hate crime charges against individuals ultimately lies within the discretion of prosecutors, and legal scholars believe they will take their cue from the amount of public attention surrounding bullying at any given time.

“The climate in the fall of 2010 had focused on a whole rash of gay and lesbian teen suicides and bullyings, but those are not going to go away,” he said, concluding that prosecutions will therefore “ebb and flow.”

“I do not think that this jury verdict will lead prosecutors to troll the Internet for possible hate crime prosecutions,” Goldberg said. “I do not think that this verdict will open the floodgates, in part, because most people do not do what Dharun Ravi did.