Hate Crimes: Protecting Minorities or Punishing Thoughts?

subpic4When a person commits a crime, should it matter what his or her underlying motivation to commit the crime is? This remains a fundamental issue underlying hate crimes statutes today.

Under the Hate Crimes Act of 2000 in New York, for example, if a person commits a particular crime and selects the target based upon characteristics such as race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, the person commits a hate crime. This results in elevated penalties, as compared to individuals who commit the same crime but choose victims at random or do not base their actions on specified characteristics.

It is important to note that a victim’s membership in a minority group is not enough to trigger allegations of a hate crime. When the state prosecutes a hate crime, the state must demonstrate that an individual was chosen specifically because of his or her protected characteristics. Even so, these laws remain controversial.

Support for Hate Crimes

According to supporters, elevated penalties for hate crimes are necessary because hate crimes hurt more than just an individual victim – they hurt a community. When an alleged victim is targeted because of his or her race, for example, all people of that race are intimidated. The activity is not merely a crime, it is also a message.

Opponents of Hate Crimes

Some opponents believe that these laws reflect an attempt to punish thoughts – and a society that punishes thoughts encroaches on personal liberties. For others, the concern is one of equity; to an alleged murder victim, the rationale for homicide is practically irrelevant, as the ultimate result is the same.

Today, elevated penalties for individuals who commit hate crimes stand as a matter of law. Those who are accused of hate crimes in New York face significant penalties along with any potential penalties for the underlying crime.

Accordingly, it is important for those accused of such crimes to work with a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer. If you have been accused of any crime, speak with a criminal defense attorney to discuss the allegation and the best approach for your situation.