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 What are Hate Crimes?

Hate crimes may be defined in a variety of different manners. A hate crime, also known as a bias-motivated crime, is a crime which is motivated in whole or in part by a bias or prejudice against a protected group of individuals.

For example, if an individual is targeted due to their race, such as being African American, or because of their religion, because they are Muslim, the crime is considered a hate crime. The laws governing hate crimes vary across different states regarding how they protect different groups.

Some of the most common groups involved in hate crimes include race and religion. A hate crime is also protected at the federal level.

There are several federal statutes which were written to provide protection against hate crimes, including:

  • 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.

What Groups are Usually Protected?

Groups which are targeted for hate crimes include groups classified by:

  • Race;
  • Sex;
  • Religion;
  • Disability;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Gender identity; and
  • Ethnicity or national origin.

It is important to note that different states provide protections to different groups. Statistics regarding which groups are covered include:

  • 21 states provide protection for mental and physical disabilities, including:
    • California;
    • New York; and
    • Illinois;
  • 29 states and the District of Columbia protect sexual orientation;
  • 17 states do no provide explicit protects for sexual orientation, including:
    • Colorado;
    • Georgia; and
    • Michigan;
  • 4 states do not have hate crime laws, including:
    • Arkansas;
    • Indiana;
    • South Carolina; and
    • Wyoming; and
  • 3 states as well as the District of Columbia provide tougher penalties for crimes which are based on political affiliation.

What Types of Crimes are Committed?

Numerous criminal acts which are motivated by a dislike of or bias against a certain group of individuals may be considered hate crimes. Examples of common types of hate crimes that are committed include:

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

Some of the most well-known hate crimes, such as those from the mid-1900’s, involve conduct such as burning a cross or vandalizing a minority-owned business. In both of these cases, the crime was arson, the destruction of property, and/or trespassing.

However, the crime became a hate crime because it was racially motivated.

What Laws Protect Against Hate Crimes?

The modern anti-hate crime federal statute in the United States is the Civil Rights Act of 1968. As it was originally written, it protected groups based upon their:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Religion; or
  • National origin.

This was also based upon whether the individuals were engaging in a federally protected activity, such as protesting and exercising the right to freedom of speech. In 2009, several groups were added as protected groups by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, including:

  • Gender, or perceived gender;
  • Gender identity;
  • Sexual orientation; and
  • Disability.

This change also removed the requirement that an individual be involved in a federally protected activity in order to be afforded protection under the Act. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 requires an increase in the penalty for a federal offense if the crime was committed based upon bias against another individual’s actual or perceived:

  • Race;
  • Gender;
  • Ethnicity;
  • Color;
  • National origin; or
  • Religion.

There are some states which also have laws that provide protections on the basis of age, marital status, and other categories, such as status as a member of the military or of a civil rights group. In addition, there are many states which have laws that require the statistics on hate crimes be tracked.

Are There Any Defenses to Hate Crime Charges?

A hate crime charge often requires extensive amounts of evidence for proof because a court will need to verify the defendant’s motivation when committing the crime. Therefore, if there is not sufficient evidence to show the defendant’s motivation, it may serve as a defense to the hate crime aspect of the charge.

It is important to note, however, that a defendant may still be charged for the underlying offense, such as assault, and they may receive the standard penalties. Conventional defenses may also apply to the hate crime portion of the case as well as to the underlying offense, for example, self-defense.

What are the Penalties for Hate Crimes?

In addition to the regular penalties for a crime which is committed, such as assault, federal laws and the majority of states also provide for penalty enhancements for a hate crime. Penalty enhancements increase the penalty for a criminal offense.

For example, if an individual assaults another individual because they are Asian and the assault is determined to be a hate crime, the penalty for the offense will be increased. The amount of the enhancement varies by state.

The intent of imposing tougher penalties for hate crimes is to deter other possible offenders by showing individuals that those who commit a hate crime will be treated severely. The Supreme Court has upheld penalty enhancements as constitutional.

Hate crime punishments can be considered similar to aggravating factors which increase the sentence for the crime that was committed. Many hate crimes result in a defendant facing felony charges.

For example, a battery which results in serious bodily injury or a hate crime which involves sexual assault. Felony charges may result in a prison sentence of over one year and increased criminal fines.

What are Some Other Facts about Hate Crimes?

In addition to penalty enhancements, there are many states which permit civil cases in addition to criminal penalties when a hate crime is committed. For more information regarding the differences between civil and criminal legal systems, see the following LegalMatch article:

In addition, numerous states have institutional vandalism statutes that provide for tougher penalties for vandalism of:

  • Houses of worship;
  • Cemeteries;
  • Schools; and
  • Community centers.

What Should I Do if I am the Victim of a Hate Crime?

If an individual is the victim of a crime, they should call law enforcement. This is true especially if the individual believes the crime was motivated by a bias or a prejudice.

If law enforcement determines that there is enough evidence, they will move forward and present the case to the local District Attorney’s office in order to prosecute the individual who committed the crime. It is important to be aware that if an individual believes they have been the victim of a hate crime, they should not refrain from reporting the incident due to shame.

Individuals who commit hate crimes often rely on the fact that they are able to scare their victim into silence. An individual should not hesitate and should contact law enforcement immediately and report their situation.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Any time you are accused of any type of crime, it is important to consult with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as you can. Your lawyer will review your case, advise you of your rights, and whether any defenses are available in your case.

Simply because a crime was committed against a member of a protected group, it does not mean the crime was a hate crime. Experienced lawyers can defend your rights and help you navigate the complicated legal system.

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