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What is a Hate Crime?

A hate crime is not a specific criminal act, but rather a specific intent to carry out any number of criminal acts. When personal and property crimes are committed against a member of a protected class and motivated by bias or prejudice against that class, they may be categorized as hate crimes. A hate crime charge is a penalty enhancer, an additional charge applied to an underlying crime to impose harsher criminal punishments.

Bias-motivated crimes can have a more destructive societal impact; a random attack against a member of a certain community causes trauma and fear for other members of that community and can create or escalate tensions between different groups of people. As such, many courts at the state and federal level implement longer sentences and larger fines for bias-motivated crimes.

Certain crimes aimed at a person based on that person’s race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, or disability could be hate crimes. Violent crimes are among the most common base offenses in hate crime cases, including assault, battery, attempted murder, and murder. The hate crime designation can also apply to some acts of vandalism.

How Does the Court Prove a Hate Crime?

If the government chooses to prosecute a hate crime, they must first prove that the initial crime took place. If the prosecution alleges that a person battered someone else over their religious differences, they will have to show that the elements of battery were met—that the accused made intentional, harmful or offensive contact with the victim’s body and the contact caused harm.

After the opposition makes their case to prove the underlying crime, they’ll need to demonstrate the accused’s motive. It’s not enough that a crime victim is in a protected class separate from the accused; to be a hate crime, the crime must be committed because of that difference. To prove the accused’s intentions and motives, the prosecution will attempt to show that the accused had an existing bias against that group of people. Evidence could include:

  • Texts, emails, forum posts, and blog posts written by the accused that express prejudiced views against the victim’s community
  • Items the accused owns that suggest bias, such as flags, books, or memorabilia for known hate groups
  • Witness testimony from people who claim to have heard biased speech or derogatory slurs from the accused
  • Internet search history records that show the accused visited hate-based site

The alleged perpetrator’s defense attorney will likely attempt to challenge the government’s case for the criminal act, and dispute that the accused was motivated by bias.

What are the Penalties for a Hate Crime?

Not all jurisdictions recognize the same protected classes when assessing hate crimes, though some groups unrecognized at the state level can have hate crime cases heard in the federal court instead.

Hate crime penalties can vary greatly based on the primary crime involved. A misdemeanor assault charge that normally carries a two-year sentence and a $1,000 fine could become a three-year sentence with a $5,000 fine. Some misdemeanor crimes will automatically update to felonies, which could add anywhere from a couple of years on a prison sentence up to a life sentence, depending on the crime’s severity .

What Do I Do if I’ve Been Accused of a Hate Crime?

Hate crimes are very serious charges that can carry harsh penalties. If you’re going to court to face a hate crime charge, a criminal defense attorney could help you get better outcomes. Because hate crime laws can vary so much from charge to charge and inferences about motive can be subjective, a seasoned defense lawyer with experience in, and knowledge of, hate crime laws can help you analyze your case, create your defense strategy, gather evidence, and advocate for you in court.

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