hate crime

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Hate Crime

A crime motivated by racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation, or other prejudice.

Hate crimes are based, at least in part, on the defendant's belief regarding a particular status of the victim. Hate-crime statutes were first passed by legislatures in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to studies that indicated an increase in crimes motivated by prejudice. Approximately 30 states and the federal government have some form of hate-crime statute. Many localities have also enacted their own hate-crime ordinances.

The precise definition of hate crime varies from state to state. Some states define a hate crime as any crime based on a belief regarding the victim's race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry. Some states exclude crimes based on a belief regarding the victim's sexual orientation. Others limit their definition to certain crimes such as harassment, assault, and damage to property. In all states, the victim's actual status is irrelevant. For example, if a victim is attacked by someone who believes that the victim is gay, the attack is a hate crime whether or not the victim is actually gay.

Generally, there are three types of hate-crime statutes. Two provide for punishment; the third type mandates only the collection of hate-crime data. One version defines a hate crime as a discrete offense and provides stiff punishment for the offense. Under Ohio's statute, for example, any person who commits menacing, aggravated menacing, criminal damage or criminal endangerment, criminal mischief, or telephone harassment "by reason of the race, color, religion, or national origin of another person or group of persons" is guilty of the hate crime termed ethnic intimidation (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2927.12 [Baldwin 1996]). The gravity of ethnic intimidation is always one degree higher than a base offense. For example, menacing is a misdemeanor of the fourth degree, but menacing based on ethnicity is a more serious offense, classified in Ohio as a misdemeanor of the third degree.

Another type of hate-crime law enhances punishment for certain offenses that are motivated by hate. In Wisconsin, for example, defendants who intentionally select their victims based at least in part on the victims' race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry are subject to more severe penalties than they would receive in the absence of such hate-based intent (Wis. Stat. § 939.645 [1995]). Thus in Wisconsin, for a class A misdemeanor based on hate, the maximum fine is $10,000, and the maximum period of imprisonment is two years in jail or prison (Wis. Stat. Ann. § 939.645(2)(a)), whereas an ordinary class A misdemeanor is punishable by a maximum fine of $10,000 or up to nine months in jail, or both (§ 939.51(3)(a)). For a class B misdemeanor, a less serious crime, the maximum fine is $1,000, and the maximum imprisonment is 90 days in jail. If the class B misdemeanor is a hate crime, the maximum fine is $10,000, and the maximum sentence is one year in jail.

A third type of hate-crime statute simply requires the collection of statistics. At the federal level, the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 (Pub. L. No. 101-275, 104 Stat. 140 [28 U.S.C.A. § 534 (1990)]) requires the Justice Department to collect statistics on crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice. Data must be acquired for crimes based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. The purpose of the act is to provide the data necessary for Congress to develop effective policies against hate-motivated violence, to raise public awareness, and to track hate-crime trends.

Laws against hate crimes might conflict with rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Generally, the First Amendment protects a citizen's right to the free expression of thoughts. However, the courts have ruled that First Amendment rights may give way to the greater public good. For example, there is no First Amendment protection for someone who falsely yells "Fire!" in a crowded theater, because such speech endangers the safety of others. Such expression might give rise to a Disorderly Conduct charge or similar charge. In determining the constitutionality of hate-crime legislation, one primary question is whether the prohibited speech deserves First Amendment protection.

In 1997, the federal government documented 9,861 hate crimes based on the victims' religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. More than half of these crimes were motivated by racial bias, and more than 1,000 were based on sexual orientation. These statistics were illustrated in a pair of hate crimes that drew national attention. The deaths of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard appeared to be quintessential hate crimes.

Byrd was walking along a street in his Jasper, Texas, community late at night in June 1998 when he was given a ride by three white men in a pickup truck: The men beat him and chained him by his ankles (with a towing chain) to the back of their truck and dragged him for nearly three miles. Byrd was decapitated and dismembered as he was dragged behind the truck. He had been alive and conscious when it all began. All three of the perpetrators were on Parole at the time and had extensive criminal records. It was alleged that at least two of the men had affiliations with racist groups, such as the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan, and displayed white-supremacist tattoos. All three were convicted of murder, and two were sentenced to death. Mathew Shepard was a 21-year-old college student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. On October 12, 1998, he died, in part, because he was a homosexual. On October 6, 1998, two men in their early twenties entered a local bar, where Shepard was already drinking. The men, pretending to be gay, approached Shepard who eventually left with them. The men then drove him to a deserted area, where they tied him to a fence and pistol-whipped him until his skull collapsed. They took his wallet and shoes and obtained his address so that they could rob his apartment. Shepard was discovered 18 hours later, still tied to the fence. He never regained consciousness. The pair were charged with first-degree murder, Kidnapping, and aggravated Robbery. Both men plead guilty to the charges and were sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences, escaping a possible death sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been called upon to examine the constitutionality of hate-crime laws. In 1992 the Court struck down a St. Paul, Minnesota, ordinance on the ground that it violated the First Amendment (R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 112 S. Ct. 2538, 120 L. Ed. 2d 305 [1992]). In R.A.V. several juvenile defendants were tried and convicted after they allegedly assembled a crude, wooden cross and set it on fire in the yard of an African-American family in St. Paul. The teenagers were arrested and charged under St. Paul's Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance (Minn. Legis. Code § 292.02). Under the ordinance, a person who placed "on public or private property a symbol, object, appellation, characterization or graffiti, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika" and who had reason to know that the display would arouse anger or alarm in others based on "race, color, creed, religion or gender" was guilty of a misdemeanor.

Do Hate-Crime Laws Restrict First Amendment Rights?

The U.S. Supreme Court's upholding of the state "hate-crime" law in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476, 113 S. Ct. 2194, 124 L. Ed. 2d 436 (1993), has not stopped some legal commentators from arguing that such laws violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Though these critics generally admit that hate crimes are on the rise, they believe that laws that increase the severity of punishment on the basis of the motives of the perpetrator create a dangerous precedent for government interference with freedom of expression and thought. Defenders of hate-crime laws reject these fears, claiming that the laws deal with criminal conduct and are meant to send a message that discrimination will not be tolerated.

Critics of the laws have articulated a number of reasons for their opposition, some constitutional, some practical. The foremost concern is that hate-crime laws violate a person's right to freedom of thought. These statutes enhance the penalties for conduct already punished under state law when the perpetrator is motivated by a type of bigotry the legislature finds offensive. Therefore, if a rich man assaults a Homeless Person because he hates the poor, the rich man can be charged only with assault, because the legislature has not specifically found bigotry against the poor to be offensive. However, if a man assaults an African American because he hates persons of that race, he can be charged with assault and intimidation, which carries a more severe penalty, or his sentence for assault can be increased, because the legislature has penalized a racially discriminatory motive. For the critics of hate-crime laws, this result reveals that the legislature is regulating the defendant's thoughts, in violation of the First Amendment.

Critics also charge that the focus on motive distorts the traditional rules of Criminal Law. In the past, criminal law was interested in a defendant's mental state only to the extent that it would reveal whether the defendant had engaged in deliberate conduct. As a general rule, the motive of a crime has never been considered an element that must be proved at trial. Whether a person robbed a bank to buy food for a family or to pay back a gambling debt is considered irrelevant. The key state-of-mind question is whether the person intended to rob the bank.

Some critics also ask what good the additional penalty will do for persons convicted of hate crimes. If a person is filled with prejudices, extra time spent in prison is not likely to help eradicate those beliefs; it may, in fact, reinforce them. These critics do not believe that hate-crime laws seek to deter criminal activity. They feel that instead such laws appear to seek retribution for acts of violence motivated by racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. The critics contend the retribution model is not compatible with the modern goals of the criminal and penal systems.

Another criticism is that hate-crime laws do not address deeper forces within society that create prejudice. Some social psychologists believe that prejudice and the behavior that may accompany it are caused by a combination of social, economic, and psychological conflicts. Adding more punishment for those who act on their prejudice may give the community the illusion it is dealing with the problem, but, in fact, hate-crime laws do little to help change thought and behavior.

Defenders of hate-crime laws reject the idea that they are taking away anyone's First Amendment rights. They note that in Mitchell the Supreme Court rejected as "too speculative a hypothesis" the "chilling effect" argument, which maintains that these laws chill, or inhibit, free thought and speech. The Court also cited precedent that permitted the "evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent." This means that persons are free to express their ideas, no matter how repugnant, but when they engage in unlawful conduct based on these beliefs, they surrender their First Amendment rights.

Defenders also believe that hate-crime laws, like other criminal laws, are aimed at preventing harmful acts. The focus is not on stifling disagreeable and prejudicial beliefs or biases, but on preventing the particularly harmful effects of hate crimes. Even critics of the laws admit that hate-crime violence is often brutal and severe. Defenders argue that increasing the penalties for this type of behavior is therefore justified.

Supporters of hate-crime laws point out, as did the Supreme Court in Mitchell, that most of the statutes use the same language as title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.). Why, they ask, is it acceptable to penalize employment discrimination that is based on racism and bigotry, but not criminal acts based on similar biases? The courts have long upheld federal and state discrimination laws as acceptable methods of penalizing conduct and promoting nondiscriminatory practices. Intentional employment discrimination requires a person to communicate his or her bias. Supporters conclude that once a person verbalizes a prejudice and acts on it, the state is free to regulate that conduct.

The trial court dismissed the charge on the grounds that it was overbroad and unconstitutionally content-based. Specifically, the court ruled that the statute criminalized too much behavior and infringed on First Amendment rights of free speech. The city of St. Paul appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which reversed the trial court's ruling. The teenagers then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.The high court was unanimous in striking down the St. Paul ordinance. However, it was divided in its legal reasoning. According to the majority opinion, the ordinance violated the First Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, declared the statute unconstitutional because it prohibited "other-wise permitted speech solely on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses." Scalia illustrated this point by noting that a government may proscribe libelous speech, but that it may not proscribe only libelous speech that is critical of the government. The St. Paul ordinance violated this constitutional rule by proscribing only hate speech delivered through symbols.

In a separate opinion, the concurring justices argued that the majority opinion weakened previous First Amendment Jurisprudence. Specifically, the majority opinion protected fighting words, a form of speech that provokes hostile encounters and is not protected by the First Amendment. By holding that "lawmakers may not regulate some fighting words more strictly than others because of their content," the majority had forced legislatures to criminalize all fighting words in order to legally prohibit the most dangerous ones.

According to the concurring justices, the statute was merely overbroad—that is, it legitimately regulated unprotected speech, but it also impermissibly prohibited speech that can cause only hurt feelings or resentment. With more careful wording, the concurring justices argued, hate-crime laws could pass constitutional muster. However, under the Court's majority opinion, this did not seem possible.

In 1993, the Supreme Court revisited hate-crime legislation and unanimously adopted a coherent approach. In State v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476, 113 S. Ct. 2194, 124 L. Ed. 2d 436 (1993), Todd Mitchell, a young black man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was convicted of aggravated Battery and received an increased sentence under the Wisconsin hate-crime statute. The incident at issue began with Mitchell asking some friends, "Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?" Shortly thereafter, Mitchell spotted Gregory Reddick, a 14-year-old white male, walking on the other side of the street. Mitchell then said to the group, "You all want to fuck somebody up? There goes a white boy; go get him." The group attacked Reddick. Reddick suffered extensive injuries, including brain damage, and was comatose for four days.

Mitchell appealed his conviction to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which held that the hate-crime statute violated the First Amendment. The state of Wisconsin appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the Wisconsin Supreme Court's ruling. The high court ruled that the Wisconsin statute was constitutional because it was directed at conduct, not expression. The Court distinguished the R.A.V. case by explaining that the St. Paul ordinance was impermissibly aimed at expression. The primary purpose of the St. Paul ordinance was to punish specifically the placement of certain symbols on property. This violated the rule against content-based speech legislation. The Wisconsin law, by contrast, merely allowed increased sentences based on motivation, which is always a legitimate consideration in determining a criminal sentence.

Some states have mandated that a jury decide whether a defendant was motivated by bias, while others have authorized the trial judge to decide bias motivation. In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 120 S. Ct. 2348, 147 L. Ed. 2d 435 (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court examined a New Jersey statute that gave judges the power to decide bias. The Court ruled this practice unconstitutional, requiring that a jury decide the issue based on the reasonable-doubt standard of proof.

Vineland, New Jersey, police arrested Charles C. Apprendi Jr. in December 1994 after he fired eight shots into the home of an African–American family in his otherwise all-white neighborhood. No one was injured in the shooting, and Apprendi admitted that he had fired the shots. In his confession, he told police that he had wanted to send a message to the black family that they did not belong in his neighborhood. Later, however, Apprendi claimed that police had pressured him into making that statement. He contended that he had had no racial motivation for the shooting but rather fired into the house when its purple front door attracted his attention.

Apprendi pleaded guilty to a firearms charge and to having processed a bomb in his house. Although the offenses carried a maximum sentence of ten years in prison, the prosecutor invoked the New Jersey hate-crime law and asked that the judge increase the sentence. The judge agreed and imposed a 12-year prison term, stating that prosecutors had shown, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Apprendi's act had been racially motivated. Apprendi appealed the sentence, arguing that he could be given such an enhanced sentence only if prosecutors presented evidence to a jury that proved, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, that he had fired the weapon out of racial bias. The prosecutor contended that the hate-crime law punished motive, which has been regarded as a sentencing issue for the judge to resolve.

The U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5–4 vote, reversed the New Jersey Supreme Court and found the hate-crime provision to be unconstitutional. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, stated that any factor, except for a prior conviction, "that increases the maximum penalty for a crime must be charged in an indictment, submitted to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Justice Stevens based the Court's decision on the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause and the Sixth Amendment's right to trial by a jury. Taken together, these two provisions entitle a criminal defendant to a jury determination that "he is guilty of every element of the crime, with which he is charged, beyond a reasonable doubt. Although judges do have the right to exercise discretion in sentencing, they must comply with sentencing provisions contained in state criminal statutes. Justice Stevens noted the "novelty of the scheme that removes the jury from the determination of a fact that exposes the defendant to a penalty exceeding the maximum he could receive if punished according to the facts reflected in the jury verdict alone."

The subject of cross burning returned to the U.S. Supreme Court again in Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 123 S. Ct. 1536, 155 L. Ed. 2d 535 (2003). The Court, in a ruling aimed primarily at the Ku Klux Klan, upheld a Virginia statute that made it a felony to burn a cross "on the property of another, a highway or other public place…with the intent of intimidating any person or group." The 6-3 decision meant that the state could prosecute and convict two white men who had burned a four-foot-high cross in the backyard of an African-American family. The family moved away after the incident. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in her majority opinion, held that the context of the cross burning determined whether it could be protected as constitutionally protected political speech. The First Amendment would protect a cross burning at a political rally, but it would not protect what had occurred in this case, which was criminal intimidation.

Hate-crime laws complicate the work of police officers by requiring them not only to capture criminals and to investigate their criminal acts, but also to conduct a broad investigation of their personal life to determine whether a crime was motivated by prejudice. This determination can be difficult to make, and most laws offer little assistance in defining motivation.

The extra investigative work required by hate-crime laws also touches on privacy issues and the boundaries of police investigations. Defendants who have been accused of a hate crime may have their home and workplace searched for information on group memberships, personal and public writings, and reading lists, and for other personal information that may have been inadmissible at trial before the advent of the hate-crime statute.

Advocates of hate-crime laws concede that those laws do not root out all hate crimes, but they note that no Criminal Law is completely effective. They also contend that the difficulty in determining prejudiced motivation is no different from the difficulty that judges and juries face every day in determining whether the evidence presented in a case supports the charge. Supporters dismiss free speech and privacy concerns by reminding detractors that protections for such categories of rights regularly give way when public safety requires their restriction. According to advocates of hate-crime laws, fighting hatred and prejudice is an important government function, especially when hatred and prejudice motivate victimization.

Further readings

Bell, Jeannine. 2002. Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Fine, David R. 1994."Beware That False First Step." Kentucky Law Journal 82.

Gaumer, Craig P. 1994. "Punishment for Prejudice: A Commentary on the Constitutionality and Utility of State Statutory Responses to the Problem of Hate Crimes." South Dakota Law Review 39.

Grattet, Ryken, and Valerie Jenness. 2001. "Examining the Boundaries of Hate Crime Law: Disabilities and the 'Dilemma of Difference.'"Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 91 (spring): 653.

Iganski, Paul, ed. 2002. The Hate Debate: Should Hate be Punished as a Crime? London: Profile Books in association with the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

Jacobs, James B. 1993. "Implementing Hate Crime Legislation Symbolism and Crime Control." In Annual Survey of American Law, 1992–1993.

Kahan, Dan M. 2001. "Two Liberal Fallacies in the Hate Crimes Debate." Law and Philosophy 20 (March): 175–93.

Zwerling, Martin S. 1995. "Legislating against Hate in New York: Bias Crimes and the Lesbian and Gay Community." Touro Law Review 11 (winter).


Criminal Law; Freedom of Speech; Motive; Prejudice.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

hate crime

a crime, especially of violence, in which the victim is targeted because of his or her race, religion, sexuality or other discriminatory factor. There is a current trend toward legislating specially against such conduct in the UK. See e.g. RACIALLY AGGRAVATED CRIME.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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