ST. GEORGE – A bill proposing to enhance criminal penalties in cases where individuals are targeted based on ethnicity, gender, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation has returned to the Utah Legislature.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, filed Senate Bill 86, “Victim Targeting Penalty Enhancements,” earlier this month for a run through the 2018 legislative session.
The bill is similar to legislation Thatcher sponsored last year, which, while introduced, never received a committee hearing. That bill came in the wake of 2016 legislation sponsored by former Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, which made it through the Utah Senate but not the House.
Urquhart placed part of the blame for his bill’s death at the feet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mirroring last year’s legislation, Senate Bill 86 would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of bias-targeted groups, as well as increase the penalty for crimes committed by a degree of offense.
For example, a class A misdemeanor would be bumped up to a third-degree felony if the crime involved is found to be motivated by a bias against the group the victim belongs to.
And this is where the issue can get “complicated,” Thatcher said during an interview with St. George News.
The victim-targeting bill focuses on the actions a potential offender takes against a certain group, and not someone’s thoughts, ideas and associations, which are protected as free speech.
He used the example of a man who may be a known white supremacist and even maintains a blog where he spews out racist ideologies. However, if this same man assaults someone who is a part of a protected class, his existing associations and writings cannot be considered as evidence for a “hate crime,” as those are protected under the First Amendment.
“You can’t even consider speech,” Thatcher said.
Still, the assault charge the man would face would could be modified under Thatcher’s bill if investigators are able to tie the man’s words and writings to the specific incident. This would better establish that the crime was meant to “send a message” to the group the victim belongs to, and not necessarily the victim only.
“I’m interested in the messaging of the crime,” Thatcher said. “The crime is not about a single person but the message it sends to a community.”
Opposition to the bill has included worries over an individual’s freedom of speech being violated, Thatcher said. His bill does not go after someone for “thought crimes.”
“You’re not being judged for your thoughts or your feelings,” he said.
Another facet of pushback has involved the question of why modifiers are needed in the first place.
The Libertas Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Lehi, states on its website that “the motives involved in a crime are not important to the action itself.”
Libertas continues: “Whether an assault was instigated by the aggressor’s jealousy, drunkenness, anger, or ‘in part’ due to a discriminatory ‘perception’ about the victim’s personal characteristics is immaterial. Taxpayers should not be required to subsidize higher incarceration rates in pursuit of misnamed ‘social justice.’”
Utah originally passed hate crimes legislation over 20 years ago. However, advocates have long said the current law is useless and unenforceable.
“Advocates point out that in Utah, it’s hard for prosecutors to convict people who’ve committed hate crimes,” Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, states on its website. “Just like any other law, Utah’s current hate crimes law does prosecute crimes like assault or theft. But the law doesn’t acknowledge when these crimes are motivated by bias or hate.”
The current law also doesn’t have the words “bias” or “prejudice” in its language, Equality Utah states.
“Our current laws don’t work,” Thatcher said.
Further support for the bill has been voiced by the Rev. Oscar Solis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, as well as several other faith leaders in the state. They shared their support for Thatcher’s bill through a letter sent to the Legislature.
The letter cites the early history of the LDS church during a time when its members were persecuted for their faith and ultimately driven west where they built what would become Utah. Church founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith were also described as victims of a hate crime due to being killed because of their faith.
“The not-so-subtle message to all others of those same race, ethnicities and religions is simple: you don’t belong here, go somewhere else. That was the same message Mormons got from 19th century mobs in Missouri and Illinois: Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered because of their religion.” the letter states.
“I really, really hope people listen to (Solis),” Thatcher said.
The bill has yet to be heard by a Senate committee. The LDS church has not yet issued any statement regarding Thatcher’s bill.
- Read full text of bill: Utah 2018 Senate Bill 86 Victim Targeting Penalty Enhancements
- Contact legislators
- Bill sponsor: Sen. Daniel Thatcher
- Southern Utah Sens. Evan Vickers, Don Ipson, David Hinkins and Ralph Okerlund | Listing of all senators.
- Southern Utah Reps. Jon Stanard, Bradley Last, V. Lowry Snow, Walt Brooks, John Westwood, Merrill Nelson and Michael Noel | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives.
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