August 4, 2006
DESECRATION OF PROPERTY LEGISLATIVE HISTORY
By: Christopher Reinhart, Senior Attorney
You asked about the desecration of property statute and whether its legislative history discusses how it applies to vandalism and the intent required to commit this crime.
A statute makes it a crime to:
1. deprive someone of any legally-guaranteed right because of his religion, national origin, alienage, color, race, sex, blindness, or physical disability;
2. intentionally desecrate any public property, monument, or structure; religious object, symbol, or house of worship; cemetery; or private structure; or
3. place a burning cross or simulation of one on public or private property without the written consent of the owner.
“Desecrate” is to mar, deface, or damage as a demonstration of irreverence or contempt.
This is a class A misdemeanor, but it is a class D felony if there is more than $1,000 of property damage (CGS § 46a-58).
The legislature added the desecration of property provision to the statute in 1980 (PA 80-56). Legislators and those testifying at the bill's public hearing talked about responding to recent acts involving desecrating public buildings and burning crosses.
In the House debate on March 26, 1980, Rep. Tulisano stated,
“…it makes it very clear that any person intentionally desecrating public property or someone else's home would be in violation of that Civil Rights Act, and that anyone who places a burning cross or simulation thereof on public property or someone else's property without their permission would also be in violation of section (a) and a class A misdemeanor. This, in fact, is an attempt to make it clear that these two acts are, in fact, civil right violations, go to the heart of our belief in this society and it is an attempt to show the world at large by this General Assembly that leaders in our society do not accept acts of intimidation and are prepared to create criminal penalties on them.”
In the Senate debate on April 3, 1980, Senator Lieberman stated,
“All too often apparently, acts that are committed by young people who may feel that they're carrying out a whim, but the impact of those acts is severe as just about anything you could imagine on the people who are the victims of them particularly when they occur on private property…”
JUDICIARY COMMITTEE PUBLIC HEARING
People testifying at the Judiciary Committee public hearing on the bill on March 4, 1980 discussed recent acts and the need to send a message. Henry Parker, state treasurer, described two incidents where he was “a victim of racist behavior” and stated, “It is certainly important in my view that we can now look to the state that says it will not accommodate any acts of racism or destruction of property, be it the Jewish monument…or a campaign headquarters, or a home, or any other property.”
Philip Murphy, from the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO), testified about public hearings held by the commission around the state on recent incidents. Discussing CHRO's proposals, he talked about a minor remedy for certain incidents, a “more stringent penalty” for cross burning and some other incidents. He stated, “That they should not be considered as minor mischief with a very light remedy.”
Steven Mednick, special counsel to New Haven for legislative affairs, stated that the city supported the bill but wanted it to require a “specific intent” by the actor.
Some speakers and legislators mentioned some concern for First Amendment freedom of speech issues, and particularly when discussing the constitutionality of punishing someone who burns a cross on his own property. Chief State's Attorney Austin McGuigan discussed his view and Rep. Tulisano asked him how he could “prove that when I burn it on my property I'm intending to terrorize somebody as opposed to burning it on my property and not intending to terrorize somebody.” Mr. McGuigan responded, “I think that that would really depend on the facts in the case and, obviously, it would require a gross deviation from standard conduct but I - ” Rep. Tulisano interrupted, “I could burn a cross every other day to make sure that no one - ” Mr. McGuigan stated, “I don't think it would require that. I think there could be intending facts and circumstances which could certainly establish that type of proof and, of course, the state would have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. So the citizen would have the full protection requiring the state to prove it.”