What is a Hate Crime?

With all the talk surrounding the tragic church shooting in South Carolina last month, the news has been reporting often on the topic of hate crimes. We tend to understand what a hate crime is from a layman’s perspective, but what is a hate crime in the legal sense, and how does it affect criminal defendants charged with crimes?

What is a Hate Crime?

In common terms, hate crimes are common crimes, even minor ones, which are made more severe if they target a specific protected class of people. This doesn’t mean that a crime happens to be perpetrated on a minority or protected class, but rather means that the crime was specifically targeted to a protected group. Usually, these crimes are used to “send messages” to minority groups or to scare larger populations of people.

Hate crimes can transform generally modest or low-severity crimes into very serious offenses. For example, vandalizing a street sign is a crime that many youths often find themselves in trouble for, but rarely does it permanently affect someone’s record or prevent one from living a meaningful and productive life. However, if the vandalism says, “We hate (fill in a race or religion),” then the crime becomes a hate crime and is much more severe.

Proving Hate Crimes

With “written” crimes like vandalism or defacing houses of worship, it is often easy to tell if a protected class has been targeted. But sometimes it is not so easy, such as when someone is assaulted on the street. The state often must prove that a person was actually targeted because of their race or religion in order to increase the crime to a hate crime.

This may require getting into the head and intentions of the perpetrator. But sometimes, there is other evidence. In many cases, someone shooting out of hate will unload an entire round of bullets, or take other actions that entail violence beyond an “ordinary” assault or battery.

Hate Crimes and the First Amendment

On the surface, it may seem like hate crimes are a violation of our first amendment right to free speech. After all, as detestable as it is, our constitution does protect someone’s right to hate whoever they want to and to speak or write publicly about that hate.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that punishing hate crimes is constitutional because they aren’t restricting speech, but merely increasing sentencing for crimes that involve hate towards a protected class. Governments have long had the authority to increase sentencing for certain enhancing factors.

Protected Classes

For simplicity, we have referenced race and religion as “protected classes,” but there can be many more classes of people that can be protected by hate crime laws. Maryland protects gender (male/female) and sexual preference, making crimes that target, for example, women or homosexuals, hate crimes. Some states don’t have such a broad definition of groups covered by hate crime laws.

The FBI has a full database of hate crime statistics for review, breaking down hate crimes by the offenders, locations, types of crimes, and other data.

If you have questions about an arrest, or are charged with a crime of any kind, the criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.