Wisconsin v. Mitchell, No. 92-515

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtREHNQUIST
PartiesWISCONSIN, Petitioner, v. Todd MITCHELL
Decision Date11 June 1993
Docket NumberNo. 92-515

508 U.S. 476
113 S.Ct. 2194
124 L.Ed.2d 436
WISCONSIN, Petitioner,

v.

Todd MITCHELL.

No. 92-515.
Argued April 21, 1993.
Decided June 11, 1993.
Syllabus *

Pursuant to a Wisconsin statute, respondent Mitchell's sentence for aggravated battery was enhanced because he intentionally selected his victim on account of the victim's race. The State Court of Appeals rejected his challenge to the law's constitutionality, but the State Supreme Court reversed. Relying on R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 2538, 120 L.Ed.2d 305 it held that the statute violates the First Amendment by punishing what the legislature has deemed to be offensive thought and rejected the State's contention that the law punishes only the conduct of intentional victim selection. It also found that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad because the evidentiary use of a defendant's prior speech would have a chilling effect on those who fear they may be prosecuted for offenses subject to penalty enhancement. Finally, it distinguished antidiscrimination laws, which have long been held constitutional, on the ground that they prohibit objective acts of discrimination, whereas the state statute punishes the subjective mental process.

Held: Mitchell's First Amendment rights were not violated by the application of the penalty-enhancement provision in sentencing him. Pp. ____.

(a) While Mitchell correctly notes that this Court is bound by a state court's interpretation of a state statute, the State Supreme Court did not construe the instant statute in the sense of defining the meaning of a particular word or phrase. Rather, it characterized the statute's practical effect for First Amendment purposes. Thus, after resolving any ambiguities in the statute's meaning, this Court may form its own judgment about the law's operative effect. The State's argument that the statute punishes only conduct does not dispose of Mitchell's claim, since the fact remains that the same criminal conduct is more heavily punished if the victim is selected because of his protected status than if no such motive obtains. Pp. ____.

(b) In determining what sentence to impose, sentencing judges have traditionally considered a wide variety of factors in addition to evidence bearing on guilt, including a defendant's motive for committing the offense. While it is equally true that a sentencing judge may not take into consideration a defendant's abstract beliefs, however obnoxious to most people, the Constitution does not erect a per se barrier to the admission of evidence concerning one's beliefs and associations at sentencing simply because they are protected by the First Amendment. Dawson v. Delaware, 503 U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 1093, 117 L.Ed.2d 309; Barclay v. Florida, 463 U.S. 939, 103 S.Ct. 3418, 77 L.Ed.2d 1134 (plurality opinion). That Dawson and Barclay did not involve the application of a penalty-enhancement provision does not make them inapposite. Barclay involved the consideration of racial animus in determining whether to sentence a defendant to death, the most severe "enhancement" of all; and the state legislature has the primary responsibility for fixing criminal penalties. Motive plays the same role under the state statute as it does under federal and state antidiscrimination laws, which have been upheld against constitutional challenge. Nothing in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, supra, compels a different result here. The ordinance at issue there was explicitly directed at speech, while the one here is aimed at conduct unprotected by the First Amendment. Moreover, the State's desire to redress what it sees as the greater individual and societal harm inflicted by bias-inspired conduct provides an adequate explanation for the provision over and above mere disagreement with offenders' beliefs or biases. Pp. ____.

(c) Because the statute has no "chilling effect" on free speech, it is not unconstitutionally overbroad. The prospect of a citizen suppressing his bigoted beliefs for fear that evidence of those beliefs will be introduced against him at trial if he commits a serious offense against person or property is too speculative a hypothesis to support this claim. Moreover, the First Amendment permits the admission of previous declarations or statements to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent, subject to evidentiary rules dealing with relevancy, reliability, and the like. Haupt v. United States, 330 U.S. 631, 67 S.Ct. 874, 91 L.Ed. 1145. Pp. ____.

169 Wis.2d 153, 485 N.W.2d 807 (1992), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

James E. Doyle, Madison, WI, for petitioner.

Michael R. Dreeben, Washington, DC, for the U.S. as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court.

Lynn S. Adelman, Milwaukee, WI, for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Todd Mitchell's sentence for aggravated battery was enhanced because he intentionally selected his victim on account of the victim's race. The question presented in this case is whether this penalty enhancement is prohibited by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. We hold that it is not.

On the evening of October 7, 1989, a group of young black men and boys, including Mitchell, gathered at an apartment complex in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Several members of the group discussed a scene from the motion picture "Mississippi Burning," in which a white man beat a young black boy who was praying. The group moved outside and Mitchell asked them: " 'Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?' " Brief for Petitioner 4. Shortly thereafter, a young white boy approached the group on the opposite side of the street where they were standing. As the boy walked by, Mitchell said: " 'You all want to fuck somebody up? There goes a white boy; go get him.' " Id., at 4-5. Mitchell counted to three and pointed in the boy's direction. The group ran towards the boy, beat him severely, and stole his tennis shoes. The boy was rendered unconscious and remained in a coma for four days.

After a jury trial in the Circuit Court for Kenosha County, Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery. Wis.Stat. §§ 939.05 and 940.19(1m) (1989-1990). That offense ordinarily carries a maximum sentence of two years' imprisonment. §§ 940.19(1m) and 939.50(3)(e). But because the jury found that Mitchell had intentionally selected his victim because of the boy's race, the maximum sentence for Mitchell's offense was increased to seven years under § 939.645. That provision enhances the maximum penalty for an offense whenever the defendant "[i]ntentionally selects the person against whom the crime . . . is committed . . . because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry of that person. . . ." § 939.645(1)(b).1 The Circuit Court sentenced Mitchell to four years' imprisonment for the aggravated battery.

Mitchell unsuccessfully sought postconviction relief in the Circuit Court. Then he appealed his conviction and sentence, challenging the constitutionality of Wisconsin's penalty-enhancement provision on First Amendment grounds.2 The Wisconsin Court of Appeals rejected Mitchell's challenge, 163 Wis.2d 652, 473 N.W.2d 1 (1991), but the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed. The Supreme Court held that the statute "violates the First Amendment directly by punishing what the legislature has deemed to be offensive thought." 169 Wis.2d 153, 163, 485 N.W.2d 807, 811 (1992). It rejected the State's contention "that the statute punishes only the 'conduct' of intentional selection of a victim." Id., at 164, 485 N.W.2d, at 812. According to the court, "[t]he statute punishes the 'because of' aspect of the defendant's selection, the reason the defendant selected the victim, the motive behind the selection." Ibid. (emphasis in original). And under R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 2538, 120 L.Ed.2d 305 (1992), "the Wisconsin legislature cannot criminalize bigoted thought with which it disagrees." 169 Wis.2d, at 171, 485 N.W.2d, at 815.

The Supreme Court also held that the penalty-enhancement statute was unconstitutionally overbroad. It reasoned that, in order to prove that a defendant intentionally selected his victim because of the victim's protected status, the State would often have to introduce evidence of the defendant's prior speech, such as racial epithets he may have uttered before the commission of the offense. This evidentiary use of protected speech, the court thought, would have a "chilling effect" on those who feared the possibility of prosecution for offenses subject to penalty enhancement. See id., at 174, 485 N.W.2d, at 816. Finally, the court distinguished antidiscrimination laws, which have long been held constitutional, on the ground that the Wisconsin statute punishes the "subjective mental process" of selecting a victim because of his protected status, whereas antidiscrimination laws prohibit "objective acts of discrimination." Id., at 176, 485 N.W.2d, at 817.3

We granted certiorari because of the importance of the question presented and the existence of a conflict of authority among state high courts on the constitutionality of statutes similar to Wisconsin's penalty-enhancement provision,4 506 U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 810, 121 L.Ed.2d 683 (1992). We reverse.

Mitchell argues that we are bound by the Wisconsin Supreme Court's conclusion that the statute punishes bigoted thought and not conduct. There is no doubt that we are bound by a state court's construction of a state statute. R.A.V., supra, at ---- - ----, 112 S.Ct., at 2541-2542; New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 769, n. 24, 102 S.Ct. 3348, 3361, n. 24, 73 L.Ed.2d 1113 (1982); Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4, 69 S.Ct. 894, 895, 93 L.Ed. 1131 (1949). In Terminiello, for example, the Illinois courts had defined the term " 'breach of the peace,' " in a city ordinance prohibiting disorderly conduct, to...

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