Why The Government Can’t Bring Terrorism Charges In Charlottesville


When Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked how he viewed the car attack in Charlottesville, Va., here’s how he responded:

“It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America.

That certainly seems to suggest the government is looking into a possible terrorism charge against the suspect, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. At Saturday’s rally organized by white supremacists, a car slammed into counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19.

But according to the Justice Department and legal analysts, it’s simply not possible for the government to file charges of domestic terrorism, because no such criminal law exists.

The Patriot Act does define domestic terrorism, and under this designation, the Justice Department has broad powers to investigate, said Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor who served as former President Barack Obama’s acting solicitor general and as the national security adviser to the Justice Department.

He said the government has three basic ways to approach the Charlottesville case.

“No. 1, this is a hate crime, under the hate crime statutes,” he said. “The second is that this is a conspiracy to deprive individuals of civil rights.”

“And the third is, this is an act of domestic terror, which isn’t itself a crime,” he noted. In short, the government can’t file a criminal charge of domestic terrorism, but so defining the incident does allow it to investigate not only an individual suspect, but also any group the suspect may be affiliated with.

In an email to NPR, the Justice Department made the same point.

A revealing insight into the state’s priorities.