Hate crimes are defined in a variety of different ways. Hate crimes, also known as bias-motivated crimes, are crimes that are motivated in whole or in part by a bias or prejudice against a protected group of people.

For example, if a person is targeted because they are African American, or because they are Muslim, the crime is a hate crime. Laws vary across different states as to how they protect different groups, but some of the most common groups involve race and religion.

Hate crimes are also protected at the federal level. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 are federal statutes which were written to provide protection against hate crimes, and are expanded upon below.

What Groups are Usually Protected?

Groups that are targeted for hate crimes include groups by race, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and ethnicity/national origin. Different states protect different groups. Some statistics as to what groups are covered are:

  • 21 states protect mental and physical disability (including California, New York, and Illinois);
  • 29 states and the District of Columbia protect sexual orientation;
  • 17 states do no explicitly protect sexual orientation (including Colorado, Georgia, and Michigan);
  • 4 states do not have hate crime laws (Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming); and
  • 3 states and the District of Columbia provide for tougher penalties for crimes based on political affiliation.

What Types of Crimes are Committed?

Many criminal acts motivated by a dislike of or bias against a certain group of people may be hate crimes. However, here are some examples of common types of hate crimes committed:

  • Bullying;
  • Harassment;
  • Verbal abuse;
  • Offensive graffiti;
  • Hate mail;
  • Property damage;
  • Arson;
  • Rape;
  • Physical assault; and
  • Murder.

Most of the well-known hate crimes, from the mid-1900’s, are things like burning crosses or vandalizing minority-owned businesses. In both cases, the crime is arson, destruction of property, and/or trespassing, but it becomes a hate crime because it was racially motivated.

What Laws Protect Against Hate Crimes?

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 is the modern anti-hate crime federal statute in the United States. As originally written, it protected groups based on race, color, religion or national origin. This was also based on whether the individuals were engaged in a federally protected activity (such as protesting and exercising the right to freedom of speech).

Gender (or perceived gender), gender identity, sexual orientation and disability were added as protected groups in 2009, with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This also removed the requirement that individuals be involved in a federally protected activity in order to come under the protection of the Act.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 requires an increase in penalty for a federal crime if it is committed based on bias against another person’s actual or perceived race, gender, ethnicity, color, national origin, or religion.

Some states also have laws which protect on the basis of age, marital status and various other categories, including status as a member of the military, or of a civil rights group. Many states also have laws requiring that statistics on hate crime be tracked.

What are the Penalties for Hate Crimes?

In addition to the regular sentence for a crime committed, such as assault, federal law and most states also provide for penalty enhancements for hate crimes. A penalty enhancement increases the penalty for a crime. So, if you assault someone because they are Asian, and this assault is determined to be a hate crime, then the penalty for the crime will be increased.

The amount of enhancement varies from state to state. The purpose of tougher penalties for hate crimes is to deter others by showing people that those who commit hate crimes will be treated severely. The Supreme Court has held that penalty enhancements are Constitutional.

Other Facts about Hate Crimes

In addition to penalty enhancements, many states allow for civil cases, in addition to criminal penalties, as the result of a hate crime. To learn about the differences between the civil and criminal systems, click here. Also, many states have institutional vandalism statutes, which provide for tougher penalties for vandalism of houses of worship, cemeteries, schools, and community centers.

What to Do if You're the Victim of a Hate Crime

If you are the victim of a crime, you should call the police. This is especially true if you believe the crime was motivated by a bias or prejudice. If the police feel there is enough evidence, they will go forward and present the case to the District Attorney's office in order to prosecute the person who committed the crime against you.

Above all, if you believe you suffered from a hate crime, do not hold it back due to shame. Those who commit hate crimes often rely on the fact that they can scare their victims into silence. Do not hesitate; contact the police and let them know about your situation.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Anytime you are accused of any crime, you should consult a lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can advise you of your rights and defenses. Just because a crime was committed does not necessarily mean it was a hate crime. An experienced lawyer can defend your rights and help you with the complicated legal system.