What if a victim was attacked in part because of their demographic characteristics, but that wasn’t the only reason?
Congress passed the first law banning hate crimes in 1968, but according to the FBI, hate crimes in 2019 reached their highest level in 11 years, with 7,314 documented cases and 51 hate crimes murders.
Data for hate crimes in 2020 won’t be released until around November 2021, but some fear that the numbers could show a further increase once again, especially with reports of increased hate crimes towards Asians and Asian-Americans after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged from China.
In response, Congress enacted the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which orders the Justice Department to expedite their review of hate crimes cases during the duration of the COVID-19 national emergency and for one year after. The Senate passed it 94–1 and the House passed it 364–62. President Joe Biden signed it into law on May 20. (All dissenting votes in both chambers came from Republicans, who largely argued against it on free speech grounds.)
Some Democrats believe the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was a good start but is too narrow and temporary in scope.
What the bill does
The Stop Hate Crimes Act would permanently lower the threshold for prosecuting hate crimes.
Currently, prosecutors have to show that a person’s protected characteristic (such as race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, national origin, or disability) was the sole reason for the crime against them. The law would change any of those characteristics to instead being “a contributing motivating factor” for the crime against them.
It was introduced in the House on April 8 as H.R. 2416, by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA33).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the legislation would allow for more nimble prosecution for one of the most despicable categories of unlawful acts.
“We need to ensure that federal prosecutors have useable tools to pursue hate crimes and hold criminals accountable for their bigoted actions,” Rep. Lieu said in a press release. “The current law, as interpreted by the courts, sets an onerous standard of requiring that a protected characteristic be the sole motivating factor for a defendant’s commission of a crime.”
“As a former prosecutor, I know that defendants can have multiple motives for committing a crime. This common sense bill changes the standard to reflect that reality,” Rep. Lieu continued. “The bill works to bring justice to our communities and prevent those who commit hate crimes from escaping the reach of the law.”
What opponents say
GovTrack was unable to locate explicit statements of opposition to this bill, but opponents might argue that such legislation, even if well-intentioned, is too broad by focusing on a perpetrator’s personal biases or bigotries rather than their actual actions, which is what the law is intended to punish.
In other words, the law might encompass people who indeed committed crimes but not actual hate crimes. Just because the victim of a crime was of a minority religion or race doesn’t automatically mean it was truly a hate crime.
For example, some opportunistic crimes like stealing a car radio may be conducted by a person who happened to have a bias against a demographic characteristic of the victim. But if the burglar didn’t know that the car was owned by one of the people they’re prejudiced against, in that case, adding hate crime elements could lead to an unfairly long sentence.
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted 26 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.