Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills has filed a complaint under the Maine Civil Rights Act against a man who allegedly yelled racial slurs at a group of Casco Bay High School students in late January – an incident that the Portland police investigated as a hate crime.
The complaint alleges that Jaime Hoffman, 20, of Portland yelled racial epithets at a multiracial group of four freshman students waiting for the Metro bus on Allen Avenue near Casco Bay High, and then assaulted two students who confronted him about his racist language.
Hoffman pleaded not guilty in February to two counts of assault and a charge of interfering with constitutional rights. The charges each carry a penalty of up to a year in jail.
The attorney general’s civil complaint, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, requests that Hoffman be ordered to stay away from the students and their families, stay off the shared campus of Casco Bay and Portland Arts and Technology high schools, and refrain from violating the Maine Civil Rights Act in the future. It also requests that the court order him to pay a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for each violation.
In the complaint, Hoffman is alleged to have made comments that immigrants should go back to their own countries and should die, and made derogatory comments about blacks, Asians and Mexicans. The group included students originally from Mexico, Sudan and the Republic of Congo, ranging in age from 13 to 15.
According to the complaint, a biracial student in the group said to Hoffman, “Why do you deserve to be here anymore than they do?”
Hoffman responded by rushing at the student and punching him in the face, the complaint said. A female student who is white was waiting across the street for another bus and ran over to check on the biracial student. She then, along with other students, followed Hoffman and his two companions as they walked along Allen Avenue in the direction of Washington Avenue. Hoffman continued to yell racial epithets, according to the complaint.
When the female student yelled at Hoffman, “It’s not just your country. It’s everybody’s country. It’s not a white man’s country,” Hoffman tackled her to the ground. Hoffman also displayed a screwdriver or knife, according to some students. He and his companions fled when they heard police sirens approaching.
“The Maine Civil Rights Act protects all people from the threat of violence or acts of violence based on bias against race, religion, color, ancestry and national origin,” Mills said in a statement Friday. “People who stand up for the rights of immigrants and people of color should not be subject to threats or acts of violence motivated by the perpetrator’s bias.”
Pat Gordon, Hoffman’s attorney, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Hoffman has a prior criminal record in Maine that includes several misdemeanor convictions, including possession of scheduled drugs, according to state records.
The attorney general has enforcement jurisdiction of the Maine Civil Rights Act. Hoffman is the fourth defendant the office has filed a civil complaint against this year, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said in an interview. Last year the office filed 10 civil rights complaints, and there were nine in 2015. If a civil defendant violates the Civil Rights Act in the future, he or she can be prosecuted with a Class D crime, which carries a maximum penalty of less than a year in jail, Robbin said. Out of 300 civil orders in place, fewer than 10 have been prosecuted for a subsequent criminal violation, she added.
“We find that the civil order itself is an effective way to deter future violations of the act,” Robbin said.
The Jan. 27 incident became politicized within days, after Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana wrote an open letter to the school community blaming a “noxious” political environment that created the climate in which the incident occurred.
“For a long time now, the rhetoric accompanying these actions represents a radical and disturbing departure from the principles on which this country was built and which so many have fought to protect and extend,” his letter said.
That prompted the Maine Republican Party to say that it would file a Freedom of Access Act request to see if there had been communications between school officials and outside political groups. Student rallies were held at Portland and Deering high schools to show solidarity with the students involved in the incident.
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said taxpayer dollars were being used to politicize a public school and alleged that students were allowed to use class time and school resources to make signs for the rallies.
Savage objected to Botana’s letter, and said it made the school environment hostile to anyone who did not share Botana’s political views. The party said in a news release that it had received numerous complaints. Later in an interview, Savage said three people employed at Portland schools said they felt politically marginalized by the superintendent’s message.
Gordon, Hoffman’s attorney, said during Hoffman’s arraignment in February that part of the case would involve his client’s free speech rights.
“In any case like this, there’s a huge question of what’s protected speech,” Gordon said. “We still have a First Amendment.”