In the late nineteenth century, a cowboy rode into a water-drilling camp in Odessa, Texas. The cowboy immediately demanded some food from the cook, described as a “chinaman.” The cook refused, so the cowboy shot him to death. The cowboy went on trial in San Angelo, but the judge freed him on the grounds that there were no laws on the books making it illegal to kill a Chinaman.[i]
It was racial injustice that led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which required that “citizens of every race and color … [have] full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.” This new law was immediately followed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbid states to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Those looking for equal protection of person and property in Wisconsin, however, may want to keep looking. In cases of battery and assault, Wisconsin state law carves out special classes of individuals to which it grants heightened punishment for their assailant. Chances are you aren’t eligible for this “super-justice” standard, since these protections are largely reserved for the most enlightened and indispensable of our citizens. Namely, government employees.
For battery, substantial battery, and aggravated battery, punishment under Wisconsin law ranges from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony, depending on the severity and intent of the beat-down. But the penalties go up if certain protected individuals are the victims. In almost all cases, these stiffer protections are granted to government workers, presumably to provide more of a deterrent. Put simply, a “private sector ass-kicking” is clearly something you want no part of.
It makes sense for some of these individuals to be granted heightened protection. For instance, police officers and firefighters are put into harm’s way by laws implemented to protect us – it can be argued that bumping up the penalty for assaulting them is reasonable. (Who are the people who go out of their way to assault firefighters – people who insist that their house be allowed to burn to the ground?)
But the list goes on – and it smacks of a Sopranos-style government employee protection racket. Causing bodily harm to an elected official (“public officer”) will get you an immediate felony, no matter the severity of the “fist blizzard” you deliver. Same goes for causing bodily harm to a “school district officer or employee” or anyone who works at a technical college. If you work as a teacher in a private school, you’re out of luck – if you’re assaulted, the perpetrator could receive a fraction of the penalty they would get had the attack taken place in a public school. Clearly, the value of your security isn’t as much of a priority for the state.
If you’re looking to beat someone up, it’s probably in your best interest to steer clear of public transit. It is an instant felony to cause bodily harm to a public transit vehicle operator, driver or passenger. Somehow, the Legislature has deemed certain people worthy of enhanced protection under state law, as long as they just happened to be riding on a government-owned bus.[ii] (Incidentally, if you’re riding in some form of private transit, don’t expect state government to allow you to protect yourself, either.)
Curiously, the law then extends greater legal protection to Department of Revenue, Department of Commerce, and Department of Workforce Development employees and their families. In fact, these government workers are provided protection from threats, which is even more protection than police officers get. Are these people under any serious threat of assault and battery? Are we expecting gang-style warfare to break out between the people who review our tax returns and the people who collect child support payments? Despite not being in any more danger that you are at your job, these people have one thing that you don’t – the respect afforded to government workers by the Legislature. The private sector might as well not even exist.
It’s always tricky business for the government to start ascribing value to individuals’ legal protections. What makes one person’s safety more legally desirable than the safety of anyone else? How is it that the penalty dealt to your assailant depends on where you happen to work?
For example, the law also provides enhanced protection to emergency medical care providers, including “an employee of a hospital who works in an emergency department.” Certainly, some EMTs are in sensitive situations that may merit protection. But how is it that people working in one wing of a hospital deserve greater legal protection than those working right down the hall? One would think that patient anger is a universal reality among all health care providers. Where do we draw the line between who deserves protected status and who doesn’t?
Currently, there’s a bill working its way through the Legislature that would provide harsher penalties for assaulting a district attorney (judges are already on the endangered species list). Naturally, public defenders are now claiming they should have the same special status – presumably to protect them from being assaulted by a client that they are trying to get off the hook for assaulting some poor sucker like you.
Furthermore, it’s not even clear that these enhanced penalties do any good. Does a criminal really make a rational decision not to assault a police officer based on the fact that he may be charged with a Class H felony instead of the standard Class A misdemeanor? More likely, he chooses not to fight an officer because of the impending rectal boot removal surgery that will probably follow his transgression. In fact, violence against police officers is almost certainly more attributable to the drugs that the suspect is on, rather than any law on the books.
If the concept of “equal protection of the law” means anything, it has to mean that citizens should receive the same level of justice as anyone else for a crime committed against them. Someone who punches out a Department of Commerce worker shouldn’t get six years in prison, while the same act against an insurance salesman only brings nine months in the joint (as is currently the case). Unfortunately, some people are eligible for more justice based on where they happen to draw their paycheck.
The lesson here is obvious – if your son or daughter is going to be a victim of assault, make sure they’re riding a bus.
[i] This story was told by novelist H.G. Bissinger in his book “Friday Night Lights,” in a section where he discusses the history of Odessa, TX.
[ii] In fact, the protection for public transit riders extends beyond the bus. Under Wis. Stat. 940.20(6), the enhanced penalty applies if “the harm occurs after the offender forces or directs the victim to leave a public transit vehicle.” So because a bus merely served as a meeting place for an assault that took place much later, the heightened penalty still applies.