ST. GEORGE — After years of failing to advance in the Legislature beyond getting filed, a hate crime bill moved forward after unanimously passing out of a Senate committee Thursday morning.
Several people at the committee hearing spoke for and against Victim Targeting Penalty Enhancements, designated as Senate Bill 103, with some testimonies getting emotional at time as speakers shared experiences in which they were targeted due to some particular trait or association they had.
Supporters said the legislation protects civil rights and sends an important message that crimes targeting a particular group of people won’t be tolerated. Opponents worry the measure goes too far in singling out certain groups for protections.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, would add penalty enhancements that would allow longer jail sentences for people convicted of targeting someone because of their sexual orientation, race, religion or other factors.
However, Thatcher previously told St. George News that the bar for proving someone had been targeted based on a specific trait was set high.
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, he said. The offender basically has to make a statement that he/she went after the victim for a specific reason, thus offering an admission of guilt.
A person’s association with a questionable group or an uttered racial slur is viewed as 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.
While Thatcher has tried to get the hate crimes bill through the Legislature since 2017, it really didn’t start to see momentum until last fall when a father and son were attacked by Alan Dale Covington, 50, who said he wanted to “kill Mexicans.”
Utah’s current hate crime law doesn’t protect specific groups, and prosecutors have said it’s essentially useless. It could not be used to charge Covington with a hate crime in state court, even though he told police he attacked the pair with a 3-foot metal pole because they were from Mexico, according to court documents.
Covington told investigators the “Mexican Mafia” had been after him for years and that he went to Lopez Tires on Nov. 27 because “they all know each other,” police said.
Luis Lopez, 18, suffered serious head wounds after he tried to defend his father, Jose, who was hit in the shoulder as he ran away.
Covington was charged Wednesday with a hate crime in federal court, the Associated Press reported.
News of the beating rippled through the state and intensified calls for a stronger state hate-crimes law.
During Thursday’s committee hearing on SB 103, Thatcher said the Utah Legislature should feel ashamed that the Lopez family had to go to federal court to see justice done because they couldn’t rely on the state.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who is of Indian descent, told the committee he was addressing it in his official capacity as well as from the standpoint of a person of color and member of the Sihk community, as he had been personally impacted as well.
Gill said he was leaving a court house in in the days following 9/11 when a group of men drove by and shouted, “Sand nigger go home, or we’ll kill you and your f—ing family!”
While just words, Gill said he began to fear for his family’s safety because those words might become reality.
“That fear is genuine,” he said, adding that Thatcher bill sends a message that potentially targeted groups in the state should feel safe and that hate crimes are not tolerated in Utah.
Thatcher’s bill strikes a balanced approach that is “fair and constitutionally sound” and that prosecutors can use to go after a hate crime, Gill said.
Among those speaking against the bill was former Rep. LaVar Christensen, who told the committee that Utah already has laws that do what Thatcher’s law proposes.
However, supporters reiterated the claim that the current law is vague and toothless and hasn’t resulted in any hate crimes convictions in the state since its adoption 19 years ago.
Previous attempts to pass a hate crimes bill have stalled due to some lawmakers not being comfortable with the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity into the list of protected traits.
In 2016 a proposed hate crimes bill drew opposition from The Church of Church Christ of Latter-day Saints, which argued it could negatively impact the balance of LGBTQ rights and religious freedom in the state at the time.
Former Sen. Steve Urquhart, the 2016 bill’s sponsor, blamed the church’s influence for killing the bill.
As an estimated 60 percent of Utah’s population and 90 percent of the Legislature are members of the LDS church, the faith is known for its influence on Utah politics.
That is not the case with this year’s legislation, however, as the LDS church has stated it is not opposed to Thatcher’s bill.
The bill is currently in its fourth version, which has expanded the list of protected classes as a way to help get the bill passed.
While adding sexual orientation and gender identity, the bill goes on to include law enforcement, military personnel, emergency responders and those targeted for a particular school association, among other categories.
SB 103 now moves the Senate floor for debate.
- Read full text of bill: Utah 2019 Senate Bill 103 — 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. Travis Seegmiller, Bradley Last, V. Lowry Snow, Walt Brooks, Rex Shipp, Merrill Nelson and Phil Lyman | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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