February 15, 2010 By Wallin & Klarich

The federal government has accused four police officers in orchestrating a cover-up in a deadly beating of a Mexican immigrant by two popular high school football players. The two youths had been charged with a hate crime because during the beating they made racially motivated comments. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has charged the four police officers, including a police chief, with witness and evidence tempering, conspiring to obstruct justice, and lying to the FBI.

An all-white jury acquitted one of the high school football players of a third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, and another defendant was acquitted of aggravated assault. However, the jury convicted both of the defendants of simple assault and sentenced them to terms of six to twenty-three months.

The case exemplifies an increasing polarization of society on the issue of immigration and racial bias. The incident started when high school football players encountered the victim with his girlfriend in a city park. The argument brokeout when the parties exchanged racially motivated comments. Then a fight started and the victim received a fatal head injury while exchanging punches with the defendants. The victim was in the United States illegally working at various low paid jobs.

The federal prosecution is not precluded from seeking convictions of defendants sentenced by state or local authorities because federal and state governments are considered “sovereigns.” The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not preclude multiple convictions in different sovereigns based on the same criminal act. (Heath v. Alabama (1985) 474 U.S. 82). Therefore, a prior state prosecution does not bar a federal prosecution of the same person for the same crime. (Abbate v. United States (1959) 359 U.S. 187). However, a state statute may bar prosecution in state court for similar crimes based on the same transaction for which the defendant was convicted or acquitted in another jurisdiction, including federal court.

California is among those states that provide a greater double jeopardy protection than is afforded by the federal Constitution. (People v. Comingore (1977) 20 Cal. 3d 142). Penal Code section 654 protects individuals from a successive prosecution for offenses arising from the same criminal act after an acquittal or conviction in federal court or in another state or territory. (People v. Comingore, supra, 20 Cal. 3d at p. 145). Hence, the statute precludes conviction where the defendant has been previously acquitted or convicted in another jurisdiction when a prosecution was based “upon the act or omission” with respect to which that person is on trial in California.

Wallin and Klarich will follow up on this breaking news story once more details become available.

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