Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

State v. Vawter

Decided: May 26, 1994.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
STEVEN D. VAWTER AND DAVID J. KEARNS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Clifford, Wilentz, Handler, Pollock, Garibaldi, Stein

Clifford

The opinion of the court was delivered by CLIFFORD, J.

Defendants are charged with violations of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-10 (Section 10) and -11 (Section 11), New Jersey's so-called hate-crime statutes. They contend that the statutes are unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The trial court denied defendants' motion to dismiss the indictment, and the Appellate Division granted leave to appeal. We granted defendants' motion for direct certification, 133 N.J. 407, 627 A.2d 1123 (1993). Following, as we must, the United States Supreme Court's decision in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. , 112 S. Ct. 2538, 120 L. Ed. 2d 305 (1992), we now declare the cited statutes unconstitutional, and therefore reverse the judgment below.

I

On May 13, 1991, a person or persons spray-painted a Nazi swastika and words appearing to read "Hitler Rules" (the spray-painters misspelled "Hitler") on a synagogue, Congregation B'nai Israel, in the Borough of Rumson. On that same night the same person or persons also spray-painted a satanic pentagram on the driveway of a Roman Catholic church, the Church of the Nativity, in the neighboring Borough of Fair Haven.

In March 1992 the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office received confidential information from witnesses identifying defendants, Stephen Vawter and David Kearns, as the persons who had spray-painted the synagogue and the driveway of the church. In due course a Monmouth County grand jury returned a twelve-count indictment against Vawter and Kearns. Counts One through Four charged defendants with having put another in fear of violence by placement of a symbol or graffiti on property, a third-degree offense, in violation of Section 10; Counts Five through Eight charged defendants with fourth-degree defacement contrary to Section 11; Counts Nine and Ten charged defendants with third-degree criminal mischief in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3; and Counts Eleven and Twelve charged defendants with conspiracy to commit the offenses charged in Counts One through Ten.

Defendants moved to dismiss Counts One through Eight of the indictment on the ground that Sections 10 and 11 violate their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. Section 10 reads as follows:

A person is guilty of a crime of the third degree if he purposely, knowingly or recklessly puts or attempts to put another in fear of bodily violence by placing on public or private property a symbol, an object, a characterization, an appellation or graffiti that exposes another to threats of violence, contempt or hatred on the basis of race, color, creed or religion, including, but not limited to[,] a burning cross or Nazi swastika. A person shall not be guilty of an attempt unless his actions cause a serious and imminent likelihood of causing fear of unlawful bodily violence.

Section 11 provides:

A person is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree if he purposely defaces or damages, without authorization of the owner or tenant, any private premises or property primarily used for religious, educational, residential, memorial, charitable, or cemetery purposes, or for assembly by persons of a particular race, color, creed or religion by placing thereon a symbol, an object, a characterization, an appellation, or graffiti that exposes another to threat of violence, contempt or hatred on the basis of race, color, creed or religion, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika.

In denying defendants' motion to dismiss the first eight counts of the indictment the trial court, satisfied that it could distinguish Sections 10 and 11 from the St. Paul ordinance in R.A.V., held Sections 10 and 11 constitutional. On this appeal we address defendants' constitutional challenge to those sections.

II

Our cases recognize that "in the exercise of police power, a state may enact a statute to promote public health, safety or the general welfare." State, Dep't of Envtl. Protection v. Ventron Corp., 94 N.J. 473, 499468 A.2d 150 (1983). The authority of the State to regulate is limited, however; a State may not exercise its police power in a manner "repugnant to the fundamental constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens." Gundaker Cent. Motors v. Gassert, 23 N.J. 71, 79, 127 A.2d 566 (1956), appeal denied, 354 U.S. 933, 77 S. Ct. 1397, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1533 (1957). Here, defendants charge that the statutes under which they were charged offend their fundamental constitutional right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Sections 10 and 11 do not proscribe speech per se. Rather, they prohibit certain kinds of conduct. Section 10 prohibits the conduct of "putting or attempting to put another in fear of bodily violence by placing on * * * property a symbol * * * that exposes another to threats of violence, contempt or hatred on the basis of race, color, creed or religion, including, but not limited to[,] a burning cross or Nazi swastika." Section 11 forbids the conduct of "defacing or damaging private premises or property * * * by placing thereon a symbol * * * that exposes another to threats of violence, contempt or hatred on the basis of race, color, creed or religion, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika."

To decide whether the conduct proscribed by Sections 10 and 11 is "sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First and Fourteenth Amendments," Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405, 409, 94 S. Ct. 2727, 2730, 41 L. Ed. 2d 842, 846 (1974), we must determine whether "an intent to convey a particularized message is present" and whether those who view the message have a great likelihood of understanding it. Id. at 410-11, 94 S. Ct. at 2730, 41 L. Ed. 2d at 847. The Supreme Court has concluded in a variety of contexts that conduct is sufficiently expressive to fall within the protections of the First Amendment. See, e.g., Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 109 S. Ct. 2533, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1989) (holding protected the burning of flag to protest government policies); Spence, supra, 418 U.S. 405, 94 S. Ct. 2727, 41 L. Ed. 2d 842 (holding protected the placing of peace symbol on flag to protest invasion of Cambodia and killings at Kent State); Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969) (holding protected the wearing of black armbands to protest war in Vietnam).

In R.A.V., supra, 505 U.S. , 112 S. Ct. 2538, 120 L. Ed. 2d 305, the United States Supreme Court determined that a St. Paul, Minnesota, Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance proscribed expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. The ordinance read:

Whoever places on public or private property a symbol, object, appellation, characterization or graffiti, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika, which one knows or has reasonable grounds to know arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender commits disorderly conduct and shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

[St. Paul, Minn. Legis. Code § 292.02 (1990).]

As one court has noted, "While the [R.A.V.] Court did not explicitly state that * * * acts prohibited by the [St. Paul ordinance] are expression cognizable by the First Amendment, such a Conclusion necessarily precedes the Court's holding that the [ordinance] facially violate[s] the First Amendment." State v. Sheldon, 332 Md. 45, 629 A.2d 753, 757 (Md. 1993).

Taking the lead from the Supreme Court, States with similar hate-crime statutes have determined also that the conduct proscribed by their statutes constitutes protected expression. For example, the Court of Appeals of Maryland found that the conduct prohibited by its statute, "burning or causing to be burned any cross or other religious symbol upon any private or public property," Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 10A, qualifies as speech for purposes of the First Amendment. Sheldon, supra, 629 A.2d 753 at 757. The Maryland court reasoned that "because of the[] well known and painfully apparent connotations of burning religious symbols, there can be no doubt that those who engage in such conduct intend to 'convey a particularized message,' or that those who witness the conduct will receive the message." Ibid.

Similarly, in State v. Talley, 122 Wash. 2d 192, 858 P.2d 217, 230 (1993), the Supreme Court of Washington concluded that part of its hate-crime statute regulates speech for purposes of the First Amendment. That part of the Washington statute reads: "The following constitute per se violations of the malicious harassment statute: (a) Cross burning; or (b) Defacement of the property of the victim or a third person with symbols or words when the symbols or words historically or traditionally connote hatred or threats toward the victim." Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.080(2). The Washington court declared that the statute "clearly regulates protected symbolic speech * * *." Talley, supra, 858 P.2d 217 at 230. See also State v. Ramsey, 430 S.E.2d 511, 514 (S.C. 1993) (finding that statute prohibiting placement of burning or flaming cross on public property or on private property without owner's permission regulates protected symbolic conduct).

Not all statutes dealing with hate crimes, however, necessarily regulate speech for purposes of the First Amendment. Although enactments like the St. Paul ordinance and the Maryland and Washington statutes have been viewed as regulating expression protected by the First Amendment, courts have found that victim-selection or penalty-enhancement statutes target mere conduct and do not restrict expression. Those statutes punish bias in the motivation for a crime by enhancing the penalty for that crime. See, e.g., Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. , , 113 S. Ct. 2194, 2201, 124 L. Ed. 2d 436, 447 (1993) (finding that statute increasing penalty for selecting target of crime based on race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry of person "is aimed at conduct unprotected by the First Amendment"); People v. Miccio, 589 N.Y.S.2d 762, 764-65 (Crim. Ct. 1992) (finding that statute that elevates crime of simple harassment to crime of aggravated harassment when bias motive is present targets only conduct); State v. Plowman, 838 P.2d 558, 564-65 (Or. 1992), (finding that statute that elevates crime of assault from misdemeanor to felony when defendant acts because of perception of victim's race, color, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation is directed against conduct), cert. denied, U.S. , 113 S. Ct. 2967, 125 L. Ed. 2d 666 (1993); Tally, supra, 858 P.2d at 222 (finding that Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.36.080(1), which "enhances punishment for [criminal] conduct where the defendant chooses his or her victim because of [the victim's] perceived membership in a protected category," is aimed at conduct). We are satisfied, however, that Sections 10 and 11 are more similar to the former category of statute than to the latter. Sections 10 and 11 do not increase the penalty for an underlying offense because of a motive grounded in bias; rather, those sections make criminal the expressions of hate themselves.

We therefore conclude that Sections 10 and 11 regulate expression protected by the First Amendment. When a person places a Nazi swastika on a synagogue or burns a cross in an African-American family's yard, the message sought to be conveyed is clear: by painting the swastika or by burning the cross, a person intends to express hatred, hostility, and animosity toward Jews or toward African-Americans. "There are certain symbols * * * that in the context of history carry a clear message of racial supremacy, hatred, persecution, and degradation of certain groups." Mari J. Matsuda, Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim's Story, 87 Mich. L. Rev. 2320, 2365 (1989). Such messages are not only offensive and contemptible, they are all too easily understood. In fact, the sort of conduct regulated by Sections 10 and 11 is a successful, albeit a reprehensible, vehicle for communication: "Victims of vicious hate propaganda have experienced physiological symptoms and emotional distress ranging from fear in the gut, rapid pulse rate and difficulty in breathing, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension, psychosis and suicide." Id. at 2336. Thus, Sections 10 and 11 meet the requirements of Spence, supra, 418 U.S. 405, 94 S. Ct. 2727, 41 L. Ed. 2d 842, in that they address conduct that is heavily laden with an unmistakable message. Those sections therefore regulate speech for purposes of the First Amendment.

In concluding that the statutes regulate protected expression, we reject the argument of the Attorney General and of the trial court that because Sections 10 and 11 "require a specific intent to threaten harm against another because of race," State v. Davidson, 225 N.J. Super. 1, 14, 541 A.2d 700 (App. Div. 1988), those statutes regulate only conduct. In State v. Finance American Corp., 182 N.J. Super. 33, 38, 440 A.2d 28 (1981), the Appellate Division found that because N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4, the harassment statute, requires the speaker to have the specific intent to harass the listener, the statute regulates conduct. Sections 10 and 11, however, do more than add a specific intent requirement. As we have noted, the statutes regulate expression itself. Thus, we must analyze Sections 10 and 11 under the appropriate level of First Amendment scrutiny.

III

The Supreme Court has observed that although governments have a "freer hand" in regulating expressive conduct than in regulating pure speech, they may not "proscribe particular conduct because it has expressive elements." Johnson, supra, 491 U.S. at 406, 109 S. Ct. at 2540, 105 L. Ed. 2d at 354-55. "'A law directed at the communicative nature of conduct must * * * be justified by the substantial showing of need that the First Amendment requires.'" Id. at 406, 109 S. Ct. at 2540, 105 L. Ed. 2d at 355 (quoting Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Watt, 227 U.S. App. D.C. 19, 703 F.2d 586, 622-23 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (Scalia, J., Dissenting)).

If "'the governmental interest [behind Sections 10 and 11] is unrelated to the suppression of free expression,'" id. at 407, 109 S. Ct. at 2540, 105 L. Ed. 2d at 355 (quoting United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377, 88 S. Ct. 1673, 1679, 20 L. Ed. 2d 672, 680 (1968)), the First Amendment requires that the regulation meet only the lenient O'Brien test. Under that test,

a government regulation is sufficiently justified if it is within the constitutional power of the Government; if it furthers an important or substantial governmental interest; if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppress ion of free expression; and if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedoms is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.

[O'Brien, supra, 391 U.S. at 377, 88 S. Ct. at 1679, 20 L. Ed. 2d at 680.]

If Sections 10 and 11 relate to the suppression of free expression, we must decide if the statutes are content neutral or content based to determine the level of scrutiny that we should apply under the First Amendment. "The principal inquiry in determining content-neutrality * * * is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of disagreement with the message it conveys." Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791, 109 S. Ct. 2746, 2754, 105 L. Ed. 2d 661, 675 (1989). If a regulation is content neutral, "reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions" are appropriate. Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293, 104 S. Ct. 3065, 3069, 82 L. Ed. 2d 221, 227 (1984). Time, place, or manner regulations are reasonable if they are "narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and [ ] they leave open ample alternative channels for communication * * *." Ibid.

If, however, we decide that Sections 10 and 11 relate to the suppress ion of free expression and that they are content based, the strictest judicial scrutiny is warranted: "Content-based statutes are presumptively invalid." R.A.V., supra, 505 U.S. at 112 S. Ct. at 2542, 120 L. Ed. 2d at 317. To survive strict scrutiny, a regulation must be "necessary to serve a compelling state interest and [it must be] narrowly drawn to achieve that end." Perry Educ. Ass'n v. Perry Local Educ. Ass'n, 460 U.S. 37, 45, 103 S. Ct. 948, 955, 74 L. Ed. 2d 794, 804 (1983).

We conclude that Sections 10 and 11 are content-based restrictions. In adopting those sections the Legislature was obviously expressing its disagreement with the message conveyed by the conduct that the statutes regulate. The State argues that the statutes are "directed primarily against conduct" and that they only "incidentally sweep up" speech. Although the legislative history is not instructive, other factors persuade us that the State's characterization of Sections 10 and 11 is incorrect.

First, New Jersey had statutes proscribing the same conduct as Sections 10 and 11 before the enactment of those sections in 1981. Section 10 deals with "placing on public or private property a symbol, an object, a characterization, an appellation or graffiti * * *." Section 11 deals with "defacing or damaging * * * private premises or property * * *." Yet, other statutes proscribe exactly the same conduct: first, the criminal-mischief statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3, prohibits damaging or tampering with the tangible property of another (the State charged defendants, Vawter and Kearns, under that statute in addition to Sections 10 and 11); second, the criminal-trespass statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3, forbids entering or remaining in any structure that one knows one is not licensed or privileged to enter; and finally -- if the offense is cross burning and if the conditions of the incident are appropriate -- the arson statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1, criminalizes starting a fire, thereby putting another person in danger of death or bodily injury or thereby placing a building or structure in danger of damage or destruction. Thus, the Legislature enacted Sections 10 and 11 specifically to condemn the expression of biased messages. Even in the absence of those statutes the State could have continued to punish the conduct of painting racially- or religiously-offensive graffiti or of burning a cross under then-existing laws.

Second, the statements of Governor Byrne, who signed Sections 10 and 11 into law, and the circumstances surrounding the signing support a finding that the Legislature adopted Sections 10 and 11 to denounce racially- or religiously-biased messages. As the Governor declared in his conditional veto, for technical reasons, of an earlier version of the statute's:

Our democratic society must not allow intimidation of racial, ethnic or religious groups by those who would use violence or would unlawfully vent their hatred. All members of racial, ethnic or religious groups must be able to participate in our society in freedom and with a full sense of security. This is what distinguishes America. And this is what this bill preserves.

[Governor's Veto Message to Assembly Bill No. 334 (June 15, 1981).]

By that statement, the Governor declared his, and the general, understanding that the Legislature's purpose was to announce its disagreement with the expression of biased messages. Moreover, on September 10, 1981, Governor Byrne signed the statutes into law at Congregation B'nai Yeshrun in Teaneck, a synagogue that had been defaced with swastikas and obscenities in October 1979. That special signing ceremony (at which the Governor and the sponsors of the legislation, Assemblyman Baer and Senator Feldman, spoke) demonstrates also that the statutes were aimed specifically at denouncing messages of hatred. Thus, we conclude that the Governor and the Legislature, by enacting Sections 10 and 11, intended to regulate expressions of racial and religious hatred.

The intent and purpose behind the statutes could hardly be more laudable. And yet the unmistakable fulfillment of that purpose is what renders Sections 10 and 11 content-based restrictions. As the Supreme Court emphasized in Ward, supra, 491 U.S. at 791, 109 S. Ct. at 2754, 105 L. Ed. 2d at 675, "The principal inquiry in determining content neutrality * * * is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of disagreement with the message it conveys. The government's purpose [in enacting a statute] is the controlling consideration." That Sections 10 and 11 are content based is not the end of our inquiry, however. Although presumptively invalid, content-based restrictions are nevertheless permissible in some instances.

IV

Ordinarily, we would ascertain at this point whether Sections 10 and 11 are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling State interest. Before applying strict scrutiny, however, we depart reluctantly from what we consider traditional First Amendment jurisprudence to analyze our statutes in light of Justice Scalia's five-member majority opinion in R.A.V., supra, 505 U.S. , 112 S. Ct. 2538, 120 L. Ed. 2d 305. Although we are frank to confess that our reasoning in that case would have differed from Justice Scalia's, we recognize our inflexible obligation to review the constitutionality of our own statutes using his premises. See Battaglia v. Union County Welfare Bd., 88 N.J. 48, 60, 438 A.2d 530 (1981) (noting that New Jersey Supreme Court is "bound by the [United States] Supreme Court's interpretation and application of the First Amendment and its impact upon the states under the Fourteenth Amendment"), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 965, 102 S. Ct. 2045, 72 L. Ed. 2d 490 (1982).

In R.A.V., the United States Supreme Court concluded that the Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance of St. Paul, Minnesota, is unconstitutional because "it prohibits otherwise permitted speech solely on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses." 505 U.S. at , 112 S. Ct. at 2542, 120 L. Ed. 2d at 316. The defendant in that case and several teenagers had burned a cross inside the fenced yard of an African-American family. Although the State could have punished the defendant's conduct under several statutes, including those prohibiting terroristic threats, arson, and criminal damage to property, id. at ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.