Pending Department of Justice Investigation
Launched on August 13, 2017

Policy Summary

On August 13, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would launch an investigation into the events of a white supremacist rally and counter – protest in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one woman dead and scores of others injured. Heather Heyer, a white woman, was killed when James Alex Fields, Jr., a man with sympathies to pro – Nazi ideology, allegedly rammed his car into a group of counter – protesters. Mr. Sessions announced that the Justice Department would “take the most vigorous action to protect the right of people to…protest against racism and bigotry.” He also said that the Justice Department would prosecute anybody that violates another person’s ability to protest. In addition, Mr. Sessions said the incident “does meet our definition of domestic terrorism.” LEARN MORELEARN MORE


The tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia has highlighted the debate as to the differences between hate crimes and domestic terrorism and the implications if it is a state court case or a federal court case. From a legal standpoint, Mr. Session’s announcement, which was intended to open the door for the FBI to get involved in the situation, that the incident was a domestic terrorist incident will only affect who is involved and the scope of the investigation and not the charges that will be brought against James Alex Fields, Jr. Susan Hennessey, in a blog post for LawFare, explains how there is no charge for domestic terrorism under federal law. The label triggers an FBI “enterprise investigation” which gives the Federal Government sweeping authority to investigate any groups or networks that James Alex Fields, Jr. may have associated. An investigation this broad and the involvement of the DOJ and FBI would not occur without the “domestic terrorism” label that Sessions has announced.

What is more likely is that the incident will be labeled as a hate crime at the state court level which, when added to the murder charge, will increase the penalties that will probably be handed down with a conviction. The case will not be pursued as a federal hate crime in federal court because the federal statutes on hate crimes have very strict requirements on protected groups, which would make a conviction difficult. Also, the federal law only applies if the victim is a member of a protected group such as race, religion, color or national origin. James A. Fields, Jr. did not appear to target any person specifically based on any of those criteria. The distinction between the two labels is hate crimes added to state charges already filed serve to increase potential penalties while a domestic terrorism label authorizes greater federal involvement with states in terms of investigations into hate groups. Some states do not have the resources to conduct multi – state investigations into various hate groups which is why bringing in Federal Government resources is vital in incidents like the one in Charlottesville. LEARN MORELEARN MORE

Engagement Resources

  • LawFare – website with articles exploring legal terms of domestic terrorism and other legal topics.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – webpage on the legal implications of domestic terrorism label.
  • Anti – Defamation League (ADL) – webpage with suggestions to combat racism, bigotry and hate and how to get involved after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact



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