Threats, vandalism and recent shootings across the country have sparked outrage and have been decried as hate crimes. But the Washington Post says condemning a repugnant act as a hate crime is far easier than making that charge stick in court, and prosecutions could be even less frequent if the Justice Department shifts its approach under a new attorney general who has indicated states should take the lead. Some states do not have a hate crime law. The majority that do, don’t agree on what acts qualify. Winning a conviction means proving a person was motivated, for instance, by the victim’s religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
Sometimes motivation is obvious, sometimes not, said Steven M. Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio who has prosecuted hate crimes. “It’s an additional burden” in a case, he said, “but it can be done.” Federal hate crime charges generally carry stiffer penalties than state statutes, which is one reason they are used. But as important, prosecutors said, a federal presence makes a broad public statement that the crime is different in its intent and impact, extending well beyond an individual victim to strike at an entire community.