Hate-inspired actions can constitute a crime at both the federal and state level. It speaks negative volumes about our society that hate crimes even exist, and worse yet that they occur every state in all regions of the country.
Perhaps one of the biggest hate crimes cases occurred is in recent years the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia in February 2020.. He was shot and killed while jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood. Three white men—Gregory and Travis McMichaels and William Bryant—were all charged with murder by state prosecutors, convicted of that crime, and sentenced to life in prison.
The trio was then charged with “hate crimes” by federal prosecutors. They pled not guilty to the charges but their attorneys reached a deal with prosecutors that would allow the men to serve their sentences in a federal prison in exchange for guilty pleas to the federal hate crime offense.
The proposed plea arrangement triggered outrage among the Arbery supporters and supporters, prompting the federal judge assigned to the case to reject the proposed deal. The federal hate crimes trial is currently underway
The Arbery cases illustrates how seriously hate crimes are dealt with at the federal level because of the intent behind them. Hate crimes are on the rise through the country so here is what you need to know about federal hate crimes and the penalties someone can face if they are convicted of them.
Hate Crimes: What Are They?
At the federal level, a hate crime is an act that includes willfully doing bodily harm to a person or attempting to harm them because of their race, national origin, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or color – or their perceived status in those categories.
Hate crimes often have a maximum of 10 years in prison. However, for hate crimes that involve sexual assault, murder, kidnapping, or an act that resulted in the death of another person, someone can face up to life in prison.
States have their own hate crime statutes. Texas, for example, considers crimes motivated by the same federal factors to be hate crimes at the state level. A person in Texas convicted of a hate crime faces enhancements to their penalties for the underlying crime, usually increasing punishment by one degree, with the exception of first-degree crimes.
How Is a Hate Crime Proven?
Not every crime committed against someone is a hate crime. It only becomes one if the crime is motivated by the actual or perceived status of the victim. So, if a crime is perpetrated against someone solely because of their perceived religion, then that can be charged as a hate crime.
There has to be evidence that a protected factor regarding a person was the motivation for the crime, and it must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in court, as well. Though it can be difficult for the prosecutor to do so, often certain facts are the cornerstone of a case, such as:
- The use of ethnic or racial slurs as the crime was being committed
- The admission that the crime is motivated by actual or perceived bias
What Are the Penalties for Federal Hate Crimes?
There are several ways that a hate crime can be punished. In some places, these include both criminal and civil penalties.
Under federal hate crime laws, violence that is motivated by bias can send a person to prison for life. Some crimes motivated by bias may even be subject to the death penalty. The biggest factor that determines how a crime is punished is the underlying crime that occurred. Homicide, sexual assault, and kidnapping may have harsher penalties than vandalism of property, for example.
There are 31 states in the U.S. that use civil remedies to penalize someone who commits a hate crime within their borders. They may have to pay restitution to the victim of the crime, for example. The civil penalties depend on the state. Under federal law, you will not find these types of penalties.
Does Free Speech Come Into Play?
Under the Constitution, Americans have the right to free speech. So, how does this impact hate crimes cases? In general, those accused of hate crimes who have tried to defend themselves by claiming rights of free speech have not had much success.
After all, hate crimes laws make it illegal to commit a crime that is motivated by bias, not simply thinking hatefully about a group of people or saying something about it. The crime is the act itself, not the thought or words behind it – even if that speech is hateful or offensive. Many of the hate crime laws on the books take great pains to avoid criminalizing things that could be protected under the First Amendment.