Third time’s the charm? Hate crimes bill sponsor optimistic legislation will pass this year

Stock image | Photo by FOTOKITA/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A bill proposing to enhance criminal penalties in cases where individuals are targeted based on ethnicity, gender, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and other traits has returned to the Utah Legislature.

2019 marks the third attempt by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, to push a hate crimes bill through the Legislature. Previous attempts have either not survived the legislative process or didn’t even make it into a committee hearing after being filed.

Thatcher’s current legislation, SB 103, Victim Targeting Penalty Enhancements, was filed Monday. It also has a companion piece of legislation in Senate Joint Resolution 8, which addresses what evidence can be considered in relation to a hate crime penalty enhancement.

“It’s a good bill and we should pass it,” Thatcher told St. George News Tuesday, adding that he’s optimistic that the bill will pass this year.

Third time’s the charm?

Prior to Thatcher taking up the cause of amending the state’s current hate crime law, former St. George Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart had sponsored a similar bill in 2016 that made it through the Utah Senate, but not the House.

Republican state Sen. Daniel Thatcher speaks on the phone on the Senate floor at the Utah state Capitol, in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 9, 2017  | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

Both Urquhart and Thatcher’s bills would add gender identity and sexual orientation to the list of protected traits and characteristics listed in Utah’s current law, one which Thatcher has previously stated “has no teeth” and isn’t exactly enforceable in it current form.

If you want a hate crime in Utah to be prosecuted as such, you have take it to the federal level, Thatcher said.

There has been opposition to the bill in the past due to it adding sexual orientation and gender identity.

Urquhart blamed the death of his bill on the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the Legislature. It has been recently reported that a vast majority of state lawmakers are members of the church.

At the time, the LDS church stated it felt the hate crimes bill “was attempting to alter” a balance between religious liberty and LGBTQ rights that was established the year before with a law that protected the LGBTQ community in matters of employment and housing.

In the years since, the LDS church has been silent on the matter, which has frustrated Thatcher, he said, as it has left the door open for others to step in who felt they needed to speak on the church’s behalf.

“I’ve never blamed the LDS church for the bill not getting through,” Thatcher said. If anything, he said, he’s wished the church would speak for itself so others wouldn’t.

Last week it finally did.

The church released a statement that it does not oppose the bill. Church representative Marty Stephens also told the Associated Press that members of the church have been victims of hate crimes in the past.

“All men and women are God’s sons and daughters and we think they should be treated with civility and respect, and that no group should be targeted for crime based on membership in that group,” Stephens said.

Read more: ‘Game-changer’: Mormon church says it’s not opposed to hate-crime bill

In the wake of the church’s statement, along with a recent case out of northern Utah that highlighted how unusable the current hate crimes law is, support has begun to swing in Thatcher’s favor.

“Over the last few weeks things have been moving very quickly,” Thatcher said.

What SB 103 would do

Under its current language, SB 103 would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of 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 targeted victim belongs to.

Thatcher’s bill focuses on the actions a potential offender takes against a member of a certain group and not the offender’s thoughts, ideas and associations, which fall under constitutionally-protected free speech.

A person’s association with a questionable group or an uttered racial slur is considered protected association or speech and wouldn’t be able to be considered by the court when a hate crimes penalty enhancement is on the table, Thatcher said.

Instead, the intent to target someone based on a specific trait must be spelled out so clearly that there is no question pertaining to the motive of the crime. The offender basically has to make a statement he went after the victim for a specific reason, thus offering an admission of guilt.

“It should be a high bar to meet,” Thatcher said.

The Lopez Tire assault

Thatcher pointed to a recent case in Salt Lake County involving Alan Dale Covington, an African-American man who assaulted a father and son with a 3-foot pole at the family’s tire shop because they were from Mexico.

Read more: Brutal beating of father, son prompts more criticism of Utah’s hate crime law

According to the Associated Press, the family of the victims, Jose and Luis Lopez, said Covington was shouting that he was there “to kill a Mexican” before he attacked. Luis Lopez, 18, received serious head injuries while defending his father, Jose, against Covington.

This undated photo provided by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office shows Alan Dale Covington, who is accused of beating of a young man and his father at their Salt Lake City because they were Mexican. | Photo from Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office via Associated Press, St. George News

Covington would go on to tell investigators that he targeted the father and son because the “Mexican Mafia” had been after him for years and that he went to Lopez because “they all know each other,” the Associated Press reported.

Covington, who also told investigators he didn’t know the victims before the attack, had heroin in his system at the time of the incident. He was charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. However, he has not been charged with a hate crime under current Utah law, which has been called vague and unenforceable by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gil.

In such an incident where the intent is specifically spelled out, SB 103 would apply, Thatcher said.

Hate crime penalty enhancements would kick in at the time of sentencing, Thatcher said.

At this point an offender would have already been convicted of the crime committed, and it would be left to the judge to decide if elements of the crime meet the requirements for the penalty enhancements.

“Once people understand, they’re on board,” Thatcher said of SB 103.

While a date has yet to be set for the bill to go through a Senate committee, Thatcher said he believes it will be approved and make its way through the Legislature.

Gov. Gary Herbert has also expressed support for “discussion and debate” on the matter.

“The governor’s paying attention now. The Legislature’s paying attention now. The LDS church is paying attention now,” Thatcher said. “It gives me great hope it will pass.”

Some Senate leaders are considering making possible changes to elements of Thatcher’s proposed bill, according to Utah Policy.

A senator who spoke to Utah Policy anonymously said they want to tweak the bill so the “’hate crimes’ part of the bill doesn’t feel like a sideshow.” The potential tweaks are also intended to help make it easier for the bill to pass.

Thatcher told Utah Policy he is open to improving the bill, but did not go into detail on what possible changes were being discussed.

Read more: See all St. George News reports and opinions on Utah Legislature 2019 issues

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

 

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