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What Constitutes a Federal Hate Crime?

In the past few years, our nation has seen an increased focus on race-related issues in various sectors of society, including criminal law. Recent offenses against certain people have sparked discussions of the motivations behind crimes and the effects these acts have on local communities or the country as a whole. Specifically, questions have arisen about what constitutes a federal hate crime, especially in light of a current high-profile case that will be tried as such in federal court.

In this blog, we will explore the topic of hate crimes, focusing on laws enacted by the U.S. government. At L. Patrick Mulligan & Associates, LLC, we recognize that these cases can be extremely challenging because a person may be accused, or even convicted, of committing a biased-motivated crime when the defendant had no such motivation. Often, these individuals are subject to increased charges or enhanced penalties because of the alleged act.

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What Is a Federal Hate Crime?

Generally, a hate crime is one in which a person allegedly targeted an individual, group, or property because of actual or perceived membership in a protected class.

The characteristics of protected classes can vary depending on the jurisdiction but may include:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Gender identity
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ethnicity

Hate crimes (also referred to as bias crimes) are typically violent offenses, such as murder or arson. Many states have statutes concerning bias-motivated offenses. For instance, Ohio’s ethnic intimidation law provides that a person can be penalized by the next higher degree of a specified offense if it’s found that the crime was committed because of a person’s or group’s race, color, religion, or national origin.

The federal government also has hate crimes laws. What determines when a criminal act will be prosecuted by the state or federal government? The jurisdiction a case falls under will depend on the facts. Typically, they're handled by the federal government when they cross state or country lines or are committed on federal land. Shortly, we’ll discuss specific federal hate crime laws and what classifies them as such in more depth.

Federal hate crimes are taken very seriously by the government because they do not affect only the direct victim of the offense. Any person within the community who identifies as part of the targeted group is also at risk of harm.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2005 and 2019, over 1,860 cases were referred to U.S. attorneys for prosecution as hate crimes. In instances where convictions resulted, defendants were sentenced to an average of 7.5 years of imprisonment.

What Federal Statutes Prohibit Hate Crimes?

The United States Government has several laws concerning criminal conduct committed, in whole or in part, because of actual or perceived membership in a protected class.

These statutes include, but are not limited to:

18 U.S.C. § 245 – Federally Protected Activities

This law concerns acts committed preventing people from exercising their civil rights or enjoying certain other privileges. For instance, it is unlawful to use force or threat of force to injure, intimidate, or interfere with a person who is trying to:

  • Vote,
  • Participate in a program administered by the U.S. Government,
  • Apply for or maintain employment with a U.S. agency,
  • Serve on a jury in any U.S. court,
  • Receive benefits from a federal financial assistance program,
  • Enroll in or attend public school or college,
  • Travel by a common carrier such as a boat, plane, or train,
  • Use restaurants, hotels, or other establishments serving the public.

Anyone convicted of the offense can face up to 1 year of imprisonment. However, if injury resulted, the prison term increases to a maximum of 10 years. If death resulted, the individual could be imprisoned for up to life or sentenced to death.

18 U.S.C. § 247 – Damage to Religious Property; Obstruction of Exercising Religious Beliefs

Under this law, it is illegal for any person to deface, damage, or destroy religious property. It is also an offense to use or threaten to use force to keep any person from exercising their religious beliefs. For the offense to be a federal crime, it must have happened in or affected interstate or foreign commerce or was carried out because of the color, race, or ethnic characteristics of any person associated with the religious property.

Convictions for the offense can result in up to 1 year of imprisonment. If the crime involved the destruction of property and the damage was valued at more than $5,000, the punishment is up to 3 years in prison. In cases where bodily injury resulted, the prison term cannot exceed 20 or 40 years, depending on how the offense was carried out. For severe matters where death resulted, the defendant could be sentenced to life imprisonment or death.

18 U.S.C. § 249 – Hate Crimes Act

Also referred to as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, this law was pivotal in reshaping the definition of a hate crime, adding protections for offenses committed against individuals because of sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, and disability. It also gave greater authority to the federal government for investigating and prosecuting alleged hate crimes.

An alleged offense may be prosecuted under this statute if it:

  • Occurred when the defendant or victim were traveling across state lines or country borders;
  • Was facilitated by the use of interstate or foreign commerce;
  • Involved the defendant using a firearm, dangerous weapon, explosive, or incendiary device that crossed state or national borders;
  • Interfered with interstate or foreign commerce the victim was engaged in;
  • Affected interstate or foreign commerce in some way; or
  • Occurred within special federal maritime or territorial jurisdiction.

The law provides that it is an offense to cause injury to a person because of actual or perceived protected characteristics. A person found guilty of the offense could be imprisoned for not more than 10 years. If death resulted or the offense involved kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, the defendant could be imprisoned for up to life.

18 U.S.C. § 241 – Conspiracy Against Rights

This law concerns incidents where two or more persons plan to prevent someone from exercising their rights or enjoying specific privileges. It has been used in a variety of cases, including those involving deprivation of due process of law, voter interference, and denial of housing because of racial bias.

If the alleged offenders are convicted of injuring, oppressing, threatening, or intimidating someone to infringe upon any civil rights, they can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. If the offense resulted in death, the individuals could face a maximum sentence of life or the death penalty.

Speak with an Experienced Lawyer About Your Case

As noted before, it can be difficult to determine whether a particular crime was motivated by bias. Various pieces of evidence must be presented for an offense to be classified as such. Still, if the government can prove that the act occurred because of a person’s or group’s membership in a protected class, the defendant is exposed to severe consequences.

At L. Patrick Mulligan & Associates, LLC, we stand up for our clients and help challenge serious allegations. Our priority is to protect the rights of those we help and address any injustices, misapplications of the law, or procedural errors by law enforcement officials.

To learn how we can help you in Dayton, OH, please call us at (937) 685-7006 or contact us online today.