States Expand Their Definitions of Hate Crimes

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A California man is accused of unprovoked attacks on homeless people. In Arizona, a Democratic congressman’s aide breaks the ankle of a Republican wearing a Make America Great Again hat. A Connecticut police officer has a brick thrown through his cruiser’s window by a suspect who talked about hating cops. Are these hate crimes? In a growing number of states, the answer is yes, as the definition of hate crimes expands well beyond traditional categories such as race and ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender and sexual orientation, the Washington Post reports. Seven states and the District of Columbia now consider homeless individuals a protected group, for example. Five states do the same for police; at least four include political affiliation or political beliefs.

Utah goes the furthest, with a new law that establishes a whopping 18 categories. It adds age, service in the military, status as an emergency responder. It even counts “matriculation” — legal speak for bad blood between schools. These greater protections come amid sharp increases in hate crime incidents, as reflected in federal data and outside reports. Civil rights groups are pushing the five states without any hate crime laws to pass legislation. Broadening who is covered has divided usual allies and raised thorny questions. Should a group of individuals qualify if their key characteristic — such as wearing a police uniform or living on the street — can change? Who gets to decide when a certain threshold has been met for designating a new category, a move that enables prosecutors to tack on penalty enhancements? At what point do these laws become so broad as to lose all meaning? Kami Chavis, a law professor at Wake Forest University, says the continuing expansions run the risk of diluting such statutes’ original intention: to protect historically marginalized or persecuted groups.

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