The Orange County Human Relations Council released a report late last month noting that there was an increase in reported hate crimes in 2011. Hate crimes in this context refer to attacks--verbal or physical--motivated in whole or in part by a certain trait or characteristic. Specifically, the report claims that 2011 saw a 14% rise in the total number of attacks targeting individuals because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, ability or sexual orientation. The full report can be found HERE. It marks the 20th year that the OC Human Relations Council has created one of these annual summaries.
The Council notes that the purpose of the report is to raise awareness of the attacks of this nature that occur in our community each year. The goal is to foster a culture where all residents are free from worry about attack for any reason.
Of course, hate crime distinctions also have very real implications on criminal charges stemming from the underlying attack. In particular, California hate crimes laws often impose harsh penalties on those convicted of these crimes. We can all agree that doing harm to another because of one of these traits is unacceptable, but it is not uncommon for community members to be wrongly accused of a hate crime. In some cases there may be a tendency to rush to judgment when someone with certain differences is attacked. At other times false accusations or misidentifications are involved in hate crimes charges.
Hate Crime Laws & Defenses
Both California and the federal government have hate crime laws on the books. They incorporate a variety of charges (misdemeanors and felonies) involving different underlying acts (physical assault, taunts, threats, vandalized property) which were motivated wholly or partially by the victim's actual or perceived characteristic. The penalties depend on the underlying crime but are generally more severe than the same conduct that was not motivated by the victim's group status. The logic behind the increased penalties for the same conduct is that a "hate crime" actually targets an entire group of people with more far-reaching effects than if the same crime was committed for different reasons.
Various defenses are available for those charged with these crimes. First off, the underlying conduct can be rebutted. For example, if you are charged with assault motivated by another's race, the actual assault can be defended against. Perhaps self-defense was at play or it was a case of mistaken identity.
Beyond that, the motivation for the incident can also be challenged. Just because the victim has a characteristic that is protected does not mean that the crime was actually motivated by the fact. The prosecution must prove that there was animosity for that group and that animosity was the reason for the crime.
In virtually all cases it is important to vigorously defend yourself against hate-crime charges. There is often a significant difference between being found guilty of one crime versus being found guilty of that same crime if motivated by hate.