Will Zimmerman Face Federal Charges?

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The George Zimmerman trial has been one of the most hotly debated topics in the news recently, and with public outrage resulting from the verdict people question whether or not the federal government will step in with charges of its own. Although it is technically possible for the government to pursue federal charges against Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, there are several challenges that federal prosecutors would face.  Because the state and federal governments are two separate spheres, the concept of double jeopardy does not apply and Zimmerman can be charged in both state and federal court for the same crime.  However, federal charges can only be filed if the state prosecution did not satisfy a significant federal interest, and if the federal government believes sufficient evidence for a conviction exists.

Federal civil rights laws were enacted to ensure proper enforcement of the law, allowing for the federal government to intervene in the event that the state left federal interests “unvindicated.” Additionally, civil rights cases are rarely prosecuted at a federal level after having already been tried in state courts, but it has happened.  The most notable example of this is the case involving the police officers accused of beating Rodney King Jr. in 1991.  All four officers were initially acquitted in state court, but the subsequent federal trial led to two convictions.  In that case, and the argument could be made for George Zimmerman as well, federal charges furthered-a government interest in bringing racially-motivated criminals to justice.

Lastly, the application of federal law to the Zimmerman case could create a problem for prosecutors.  Many laws relating to racial violence and hate crimes deal with state authority over acts committed in public areas.  Because Zimmerman was not an actor of the government nor did the altercation take place on public property, a new statute that deems any racially-motivated violence a crime would most likely be used by the prosecution.  In order for federal prosecutors to convict Zimmerman they will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his actions were motivated by race.  Doing so would not be an easy task, as there were no witnesses and Zimmerman has previously claimed self-defense.

Although there are many challenges that prosecutors would face, federal charges are not completely out of the question, especially as public outrage continues.


Featured image courtesy of [Werth Media via Flickr]

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at



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