McEntee: Utah's 'hate crimes' law lacks details
Utah's "hate crimes" statute doesn't address hate crimes specifically involving the gay community. It does provide that a judge or the State Board of Pardons and Parole can consider community unrest or reasonable fear for people's physical safety and their free exercise of constitutional rights Â when deciding on enhanced punishment.
But that's not enough.
The Criminal Penalty Amendments bill was enacted in 2006 after a 15-year effort by lawmakers trying to codify something, anything, that would address crimes intended to terrorize people.
This becomes pertinent now, when purported hate crimes against gay men have again raised awareness that certain people gay, young, old, ill, people of color and those of different faiths can be targets.
The deeper issue is that many Utah lawmakers were so worried about protections for the LGBT community that they took a stand that offers few protections to any vulnerable people in any real sense.
The Salt Lake City Police Department investigates 30 to 50 aggravated assault cases each month, working to bring the assailants to justice and give equal justice to their victims, says spokeswoman Lara Jones, speaking on behalf of Chief Chris Burbank.
Each case requires corroboration with victims and witnesses, if there are any. In the case of a Salt Lake man who claims to have been brutally attacked in Salt Lake City on Aug. 26,his lack of memory and a dearth of witnesses have made it difficult for police not only to solve the case but to consider it a hate crime, Jones says.
That takes us back to the 2006 law. It does not define hate crimes, but does allow judges and the Board of Pardons to consider aggravating factors related to terrorizing a community. For example, penalties based on a class B misdemeanor offense could be raised to a class A misdemeanor penalty, in the case of prisons or denial of parole.
In short, the law contains no reference to bias or minority status, including sexual orientation, which was the reason many conservative lawmakers, including the Eagle Forum's Gayle Ruzicka, supported it.
This despite the LDS Church statement in 2003 and later years that it "abhors all hate crimes," while remaining opposed to same-sex marriage. That, the statement said, "should never be interpreted as justification for hatred, intolerance or abuse of those who profess homosexual tendencies, either individually or as a group."
Brandie Balken of Equality Utah sees the law's weakness as leaving those "already targeted or marginalized even more vulnerable."
"It stripped everything. The same with bullying and hazing," she says. "Any targeted attack is not acceptable. Any such activity, regardless of its basis, is unacceptable. Most Utahns support that."
A majority of states have fairly robust hate-crimes laws, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Utah stands among just 14 states that address hate or bias crimes, but not sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Nearly all the other states specify civil action, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or disability in varying degrees. Utah has none of those, only bias-motivated violence and intimidation.
Specificity, says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, has helped prosecutors in other states prove beyond reasonable doubt that a crime was committed against a protected class and that enhanced penalties are warranted.
Utah wields a broad brush that, for the sake of the vulnerable, should be made more precise.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist.Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook/pegmcentee .