You might hear about “hate crimes” in the news media. You might even know a victim. Did you know, however, that specific legal definitions apply and that much more is involved than committing a crime with hateful emotions? 

First, hate crimes are serious matters. They are the highest priority of the FBI’s civil rights program and 47 states and the District of Columbia have statutes criminalizing various types of related violence or intimidation. 

Federal law defines a hate crime as a traditional offense, like murder, arson, or vandalism, but with an added element of bias. Such crimes are committed against a person or property and motivated in part or in whole by an offender’s bias against someone’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.

The emotion of hate may not be a crime and authorities have a duty to protect lawful expressions of speech and civil liberties no matter how offensive, but crossing the line into criminal behavior can be met with harsh repercussions.

Hate crimes have devastating impacts on families and communities. Victims not only include a perpetrator’s immediate target, but others like them. For example, a racially motivated attack can terrorize members of the victim’s racial community far and wide. The U.S. Department of Justice offers multiple clarifying examples based on past prosecutions:

  • Sexual Orientation: Five gay men were leaving a bar when a group of unknown hecklers approached. They shouted homophobic slurs and beat the victims unconscious. 
  • Religion: Vandals broke into a synagogue and destroyed priceless religious objects while leaving other valuable items undisturbed. The perpetrators also drew a large swastika on the door.
  • Disability: An angry resident set fire to a nearby psychiatric center because he did not want “crazies” in his neighborhood. Twelve people suffered second and third degree burns.
  • Race: A Japanese American was severely beaten by a 51-year-old white male wielding a tire iron because the assailant believed the Japanese were stealing American jobs.

Law enforcement authorities investigate hundreds of potential hate crimes every year. If bodily injury occurs or if acts of intimidation involve firearms, explosives, or fire, then convicted individuals can receive up to 10 years in prison. If the crimes involving kidnapping, sexual assault, or murder they can be punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of a potential hate crime, our office can help you navigate the associated legal challenges. Please feel free to get in touch with us to schedule a meeting.