Bill to strengthen federal hate crimes laws introduced in Senate

Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaking at the Democratic National Convention summer session in San Francisco, California
Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaking at the Democratic National Convention summer session in San Francisco, California Photo: Shutterstock

Two senators have introduced a bill that would strengthen federal hate crimes law.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act of 2020 today.

Related: Matthew Shepard’s parents slammed the Trump administration at Department of Justice ceremony

The bill would modify the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 – which allows the federal government to intervene in hate crime investigation and prosecution – to say that bias against a protected class only needs to be a “substantial motivating factor” for a crime for it to be considered a hate crime, not the sole motivating factor.

A press release for the bill explains that courts have been divided on the language in the 2009 hate crimes bill.

“In 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted the law to require that hate crime prosecutors must prove that bias against a protected characteristic was the sole motivation for the crime – a standard that is difficult to prove and could chill the enforcement of the federal hate crimes law,” the statement says.

The statement is referring to Miller v. United States, where 15 Amish people from the cult-like Bergholz community in Ohio were arrested in connection to five beard-cutting attacks in 2011. They cut the beards of Amish men in nearby communities who were critical of their practices.

The federal government stepped in and added hate crimes enhancements, arguing that the attack was motivated by bias against the victims’ religion. They were convicted, but the appeals court overturned the conviction, saying that the jury should have been instructed to decide whether the attack would have happened if the victims were of another religion. If the jury believed that the victims’ religion could have been different and the attack still would have occurred, then it wasn’t a hate crime, the court ruled.

While a judge who dissented in that case said that there was “overwhelming and uncontested evidence” that the attack would not have happened if the victims weren’t Amish (because the cult-like Bergholz Amish community wouldn’t have cared about the victims’ opinions if they weren’t Amish as well), the court ruled that the jury might have seen it another way if they were told that bias had to be the sole motivating factor.

“As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen firsthand the trauma that hate crimes can inflict not only on victims, but also on entire communities. We must stand together to make combating hate-motivated violence a priority,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

“The Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act ensures that federal law enforcement have the authority needed to prosecute hate crimes. We must do all we can to put an end to attacks motivated by prejudice.”

The law comes from a proposal by D.C.-area U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu, according to the Washington Blade.

The Matthew Shepard Act includes gender identity and sexual orientation as protected categories.

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