Hate crimes are violent actions intended to hurt and intimidate someone based on a protected characteristic. These characteristics include:
- National origin
- Religious beliefs
- Sexual orientation
- Familial status
A crime involving force or threat of force becomes a civil rights violation if the perpetrator is motivated by intolerance and hate. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects hate speech, but only if the speech doesn't interfere with someone else's civil rights.
Someone convicted of a hate crime usually faces a sentencing enhancement compared to someone who committed the same actions without discriminatory animosity. This legal distinction also helps prosecutors establish motives for certain crimes.
This article includes information about bias-motivated hate crimes and the prosecution of civil rights violations. It also discusses the history of these crimes and includes links to resources from the federal government.
What Makes a Crime a 'Hate Crime?'
If the intent of a crime is to hurt or intimidate someone primarily because of their affiliation with a certain ethnic, religious, or other identity, it is considered a hate crime and charged accordingly.
A person who commits violence against someone else for no particular reason will likely face criminal assault and battery charges. In contrast, someone who commits violence against a recent immigrant may be charged with a hate crime. That's assuming it can be proven that the perpetrator acted out of intolerance for immigrants. The prosecution must be able to prove intent in order to prevail.
One way to think of hate crimes is that they are acts of terrorism against a particular community. Actions against even one individual are meant to express hatred of the larger community. Someone who sets fire to an African-American church, for example, is (most likely) committing a hate crime meant to terrorize the congregants and African-Americans in general. A law such as the Church Arson Prevention Act might apply in this instance.
How To Report a Hate Crime
Witnesses and victims can report hate crimes by contacting either the local police department or the local FBI field office. Local law enforcement and other law enforcement officials can investigate human rights violations.
Keep in mind that hate crimes are relatively difficult to prosecute. They require solid proof that the perpetrator acted with hateful intent. There must be clear evidence that the person harbored hateful intentions toward a certain segment of the population. This evidence may not be available. Victims of hate crimes often face an uphill battle in seeking justice.
If you plan on reporting a hate crime, make sure you write down as many details about the incident as possible. Include names of those involved and any other witnesses who could shed light on the incident. Offer this information to law enforcement agencies. If a crime is serious enough, it may be brought to the attention of your state's attorney general.
A Brief History of Hate Crimes and Civil Rights Enforcement
Federal protections against hate crimes went into effect when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This law set the framework for hate crime prosecution by making it a federal crime to "by force or by threat of force, intimidate, or interfere with anyone... by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin." These protections were extended to certain activities such as:
- School attendance
- Patronization of a public facility such as a library
- Applying for a job
There was pressure to toughen the federal law after two high-profile crimes that were seemingly motivated by hate couldn't be successfully prosecuted. The crimes resulted in the deaths of James Byrd, Jr., an African-American, and Matthew Shepard, who was gay.
In October 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The original law was limited to the federally protected activities listed above. The new law extended hate crimes law to cover crimes motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity. It also expanded the covered activities.
Learn About Hate Crimes
Hate crimes are serious, particularly since they are crimes against entire communities. They can affect fair housing rights, free exercise of religion, access to public accommodations, and more. Click on any of the links below to learn more:
- Hate Crimes: The Violence of Intolerance: An overview of hate crimes and applicable laws. This article explains hate crimes, possible penalties, victim and perpetrator statistics, how to report a hate crime, and much more.
- Hate Crimes and Criminal Civil Rights Enforcement: History and the Law: A look at the history behind hate crime laws. You'll find information on the federal criminal civil rights laws prohibiting hate crimes and the historical events leading to their creation.
- Preventing Youth Hate Crime: The U.S. Department of Education's guide to preventing hate crimes among young people. You'll find background information on hate crimes and tips for preventing them in schools.
- Government Prosecution of Criminal Civil Rights Violations Q & A: A collection of commonly asked questions about government prosecution of criminal civil rights violations. Find answers to your questions about the difference between civil and criminal violations.
- Initiative to Combat Post-9/11 Discriminatory Backlash: Following the 9/11 attacks, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) implemented a plan to help prevent backlash against minority groups. The Department's site has information on preventing and reporting discriminatory backlash.
- FBI Information on Hate Crimes: The Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) page on hate crime laws and news. You'll find recent hate crime data and hate crime statistics in addition to past cases involving hate crimes, information on how to report hate crimes and discrimination, and background information.
You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer's Help
Have you been the subject of a bias crime? Was there a defacing of your religious property? Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and aid in the prosecution of hate crimes. There are federal statutes and state laws to protect you. Some states even have data collection on hate crimes. Laws may vary between places like the District of Columbia and Texas. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help. An attorney can educate you about federal hate crime laws and hate crime statutes.
Learn About Hate Crimes
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.