Hate crimes bill advances; now just one step away from governor’s desk

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, discusses his hate crimes bill on the Utah Senate floor, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 5, 2019. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill into law Tuesday. | File photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A bill that would increase sentencing penalties for people convicted of targeting someone based on a specific characteristic, background or affiliation, was approved Friday by House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

Previously attempts to pass the bill have been stymied since 2016 when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked the Legislature to not to consider the bill that year as church leaders worried it could upset a balance between religious freedoms and LGBTQ rights. A majority of Utah lawmakers belong to the church.

Earlier this year, the LDS church announced it did not oppose the bill.

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

Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s bill has since gained support from Gov. Gary Herbert and various organizations and passed the Senate where is had stalled for three years.

While seemingly on track to finally be approved by the Legislature and head toward the governor’s desk, the bill has run into some opposition.

Thatcher told the committee that an argument against the bill is that it creates special protected classes where a crime’s punishment against said class is harsher than a regular crime.

Opponents say that “a crime is a crime” and they all must be treated equally, Thatcher said, adding “that’s not how the justice system works.”

Read more: Utah hate-crimes law passes Senate, moves to House

Criminal penalties are handed out by the court based on the conduct of the perpetrator and severity of the crime, he said.

An example Thatcher gave was of someone spray-painting random graffiti on the side of a house versus a synagogue having a swastika and “die Jews” spray-painted on it.

“Now, if you believe those are the same crime, because in both cases you still have to clean up graffiti, then with respect, you may not come on with this bill and you probably should vote against it,” Thatcher said.

He further stated that if the committee members couldn’t tell the difference, they shouldn’t be the ones in charge of making criminal justice policy.

Thatcher’s comment was not taken well by some of the committee members.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, while stating he supported the bill, called Thatcher’s comments insulting and out of order.

Thatcher apologized for the comment, calling it “flippant” and “grossly inappropriate.”

“The biggest challenge that we have when discussing hate crimes is the term itself,” Thatcher said. “When you say the term ‘hate crimes,’ people have very, very strong reactions.”

Penalty enhancements proposed by the bill wouldn’t be considered in a criminal case until after someone has been convicted of a crime. At that time the judge can consider whether the crime was the result of an individual being targeted due to a particular trait.

Because of First Amendment issues, a suspect’s general speech and associations – whether they use racial slurs in their speech or belong to a known racist group – cannot be taken into consideration by the judge unless they can be directly tied to the crime in question.

“We are not punishing thoughts or feelings. We are not criminalizing anything that is not currently a crime,” Thatcher said. “This is about the action. I can’t prove how you think. I can’t prove how you feel, but I can prove if you intentionally and deliberately singled someone out.”

SB 103 now goes to the House floor. The legislative session ends March 14.

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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