An Arkansas man pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of committing a federal hate crime and one count of conspiring to commit a federal hate crime for his role in chasing a car with five Hispanic men inside until it crashed, the U.S. Justice Department announced Monday.


Nineteen-year-old Sean Popejoy has become the first person to be convicted for a violation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was enacted in October 2009.

"James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard were brutally murdered more than a decade ago, and today the first defendant is convicted for a hate crime under the critical new law enacted in their names,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "It is unacceptable that violent acts of hate committed because of someone’s race continue to occur in 2011, and the department will continue to use every available tool to identify and prosecute hate crimes whenever and wherever they occur."

Popejoy admitted that he and a friend pursued a car containing five Hispanic men with the intention of threatening and injuring them in 2010.

Pursuing the victims in a truck, Popejoy leaned outside of the front-side passenger window of the vehicle and waived a tire wrench at the car while shouting racial epithets. The driver of the truck then rammed into the victims' car, causing it to veer off the road, crash into a tree and catch on fire.

The five men were injured in the crash, with one man sustaining life-threatening injuries.

Popejoy faces a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison.

"It is terrible and disturbing that violence motivated by hatred of another’s race continues to occur,” said Conner Eldridge, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. "We are committed to prosecuting such crimes in the Western District of Arkansas."