Violent crime charges can carry stiff penalties. If the court thinks your crime was motivated by certain kinds of bias or prejudice, you could receive additional charges for committing a hate crime.
“Hate crime” is an aggravating factor or penalty enhancer under federal law and the laws of some states. If you’re a suspect in a crime that was based on racism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, or other forms of bigotry, the prosecution may seek to increase your potential sentence by adding this charge to your case.
On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Justice differentiates “hate crimes” from “hate (or bias) incidents.” A hate crime includes criminal acts of violence, threat, or property damage provoked by prejudice. A hate incident is a non-criminal act provoked by prejudice, such as verbally insulting someone by using racist language.
Hate crimes often include violent crimes like assault, battery, and murder and some property crimes like vandalism. Hate crimes are different from other acts of violence and destruction because of the suspected motivation for the act. Hate crimes include a specific hatred or prejudice against a victim’s protected class status, like their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or gender identity.
Statutory hate crime laws vary from state to state. Some states expand hate crime laws to cover violence motivated by the victim’s age or political affiliation. Other states reduce hate crime laws to exclude certain victims. In many states, targeting victims for their sexual orientation or gender identity may not qualify as a form of hate crime under the law.
If a state law doesn’t recognize a type of hate crime victim class that the federal government recognizes, these crimes can be reported to the FBI.
In most jurisdictions, convictions will carry enhanced legal penalties. Some misdemeanors will be upgraded to felonies, or additional years may be added to minimum prison sentence guidelines.
In order to prove a hate crime, the prosecution has to show that a crime took place and was motivated by hate for the victim’s identity or a certain class of characteristics.
Because it’s a crime classification, prosecutors must confirm that your actions met the elements of the underlying alleged crime first. If you’re charged with a hate crime because you allegedly attacked someone with a disability, prosecutors may first argue that your actions met the required elements of battery.
The prosecution will then typically present evidence to prove an alleged bias. Say you posted general death threats online against members of a particular religion. If the crime was committed against a person who follows that religion, your post could be introduced as evidence that religious intolerance was the motivation for your actions.
Witness testimony can also come into play. If you’ve said derogatory things about a certain ethnicity to your acquaintances, they could be called to the stand if you’re charged with hate crimes against someone in that ethnic group. If you use disparaging slurs while perpetrating an attack, those statements can be used to infer your motive.
Often, the first line of criminal defense in a hate crime case is refuting that an underlying crime even occurred, perhaps by arguing that certain actions never happened, or that any actions that did happen were not criminal. If a defendant mistreats someone because of a bias against their race, gender, or sexual orientation, but the mistreatment wasn’t criminal, the hate crime case usually can’t go forward.
If disproving a crime isn’t a viable option, the criminal defense may shift to discrediting allegations that it was motivated by bias. Not all violent acts against someone of a marginalized race, for example, are automatically hate crimes. If criminal charges are inevitable in your case, a criminal defense attorney may argue that your motive was based on something other than bias.
Your intent is a significant factor used to determine your charges or penalties. Hate crimes don’t just include victims from certain protected groups; they also include victims who you perceived as from certain protected groups. If you were violent toward an individual because you thought they had a disability you were biased against, you could still be guilty of a hate crime even if the victim did not actually have that disability. If certain characteristics make you assume a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation, even if that person was neither transgender nor gay, the court could declare that you had biased intent.
Hate crime cases are complex. One of the best ways to protect yourself against these kinds of allegations is to work with an experienced lawyer to assess your case and build a strong defense. A qualified criminal defense attorney could help you identify defense strategies you may not notice on your own, negotiate with the prosecution to reduce charges and penalties, and navigate the complex procedures of the court system.
Many criminal defense lawyers will offer a free consultation, so you can get information about your options before you commit to a course of action. And because you’ll need to share sensitive information when you talk to a lawyer, a free consultation remains confidential, even if you do not hire that attorney. When you contact attorneys to assess your defense options, protect yourself and ask upfront what the confidentiality limits are for any conversation you have.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified hate crime lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local hate crime attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.