Understanding Hate Crime Laws

Making national headlines this week, the suspected hate crime in Chapel Hill North Carolina, which has left three young students murdered. The heinous crime begs the question whether the killings were motivated by hate.   The suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, has been charged with 3 counts of first degree murder of three Muslim victims, Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21 and Razan Abu-Salha, 19.

Hicks allegedly shot all three students execution-style near the University of North Carolina campus on Tuesday after posting anti-religious sentiments online. The police investigation has unveiled that the murders stem from an ongoing parking dispute in the condominium complex. However, family, friends, and the nation are asking whether the victims were targeted because of their religion and culture.

The women victims’ father told the News & Observer that the killings were “execution style, a bullet in every head. He went on to further say, “ this was not a dispute over a parking space, this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. They were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”

As with prosecution of any crimes there is an intent required to prove culpability of a defendant. Hate crimes have gained public awareness and a need for comprehensive coordinated responses in addressing these types of crimes.

In 1990 Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act in an effort to document the prevalence of bias-motivated crimes. The FBI began to collect hate crime data, which is based on voluntary reporting by law enforcement agencies of the number of offenses in which bias was the motivating factor, the nature of the offense and the characteristics of the victims and offenders.

Hate Crime Legislation

Hate crime laws come in various forms and target various types of activity. The two widely applicable types of hate crime laws are penalty enhancement provisions and stand-alone statutes. In California, the stand-alone criminal civil rights statute prohibits interference with the civil rights of another on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation and other status characteristics. Provisions increase the punishment for an underlying offense when a victim is targeted on the basis of characteristics such as race. In situations where a hate crime law is nonexistent or inapplicable, prosecutors have the option of introducing bias motive at sentencing.

Identifying and Investigating

Law enforcement and investigators also play an important role since careful evidence collection is crucial. To enhance the likelihood of a successful prosecution, police and prosecutors coordinate to conduct a thorough investigation and follow up on suspected hate crimes.

California has used a successful strategy in the use of field identification cards. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office works with local law enforcement agencies to develop a profiling and tracking system for hate crimes. This system is similar as those used to track gang membership, employing identification cards to help them document the name, age, gang/hate group affiliation, tattoos, and known associates of suspects. This information is stored in a computer database that can be searched when hate crimes occur.

Prosecutors play a significant role in screening potential hate crime cases. In weighing the decision to file hate crime charges there are several factors considered: the facts of each case and whether a bias or prejudice is a basis for motivation, the federal, state or local statutes that define what hate crime, and whether there is sufficient proof to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.

If accused of a hate crime, these matters are not taken lightly on both state and federal levels. It is important to understand your rights and how these cases are handled. San Diego criminal lawyer Alex Ozols at Ozols Law Firm can talk to you about your rights and defenses. Give our office a call today.