A crime that involves the use of force or threat of force may become a civil rights violation if the perpetrator was motivated by intolerance and hate (for instance, hatred of a particular ethnic group). Hate crimes are violent actions intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Usually someone who is convicted of a hate crime faces a steeper penalty than someone who performed the same actions without discriminatory animosity, but this legal distinction also helps prosecutors establish motive in certain crimes. This section includes information about hate crimes and the prosecution of civil rights violations; the history of these crimes; and links to resources from the federal government.
What Makes a Crime a 'Hate Crime?'
If the intent of the crime is to hurt and/or intimidate someone primarily because of their affiliation with a certain ethnic, religious, or other identity, it is considered a hate crime and charged as such. Someone who commits violence against someone for no particular reason will likely face criminal assault and battery charges. But someone who commits violence against a recent immigrant may be charged with a hate crime if it can be proven that he acted out of intolerance for immigrants. The prosecution must be able to prove such an intent in order to prevail in its case.
One way to think of hate crimes is that they are acts of terrorism against a particular community, that actions against even one individual are meant to express hatred of the larger community. Someone who sets fire to a historically African-American church, for example, is (most likely) committing a hate crime meant to terrorize not just the congregants but African-Americans in general.
How to Report a Hate Crime
Witnesses and victims can report alleged hate crimes by contacting either the local police department or the local FBI field office. But keep in mind that hate crimes are relatively difficult to prosecute because they require solid proof that the perpetrator acted with hateful intent. In other words, there must be clear evidence that the individual harbored hateful intentions toward a certain segment of the population, evidence that may not be available in many cases. If you plan on reporting an alleged hate crime, make sure you write down as many details about the incident as possible, including names of those involved and any other witnesses who could shed additional light on the incident.
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 (not to be confused with the broader law passed in 1964). 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, the patronization of a public facility (such as a library), applying for a job, and voting.
But after the inability to prosecute two high-profile crimes seemingly motivated by hate -- resulting in the deaths of James Byrd, Jr. (an African-American) and Matthew Shepard (a homosexual) -- there was pressure to toughen the federal law. Eventually, in October 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law. While the original law was limited to the federally protected activities listed above (such as voting or attending school), the new law removed this requirement and also extended hate crimes law to cover crimes motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity.
Hate crimes are very serious, particularly since they are crimes against entire communities. Click on a link below to learn more.