A yearslong effort to update Utah’s hate crimes law took a significant step forward Thursday, earning the unanimous approval of a Senate committee after failing to be granted an initial hearing during previous legislative sessions.
But Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said after the committee vote that the full Senate is more closely split on his bill, SB103, and that passage is “not a done deal.”
“Victory laps would be very premature,” Thatcher said, “but it does feel damn good to be on the field.”
Thatcher credited the support of diverse community groups and individuals in helping to sway the opinions of his legislative colleagues. He also said high-profile crimes — such as the recent attack of a man and father at a Salt Lake City tire shop — had generated public attention on the topic of enhancing criminal penalties when victims are targeted based on attributes like race, sexual orientation or religion.
Utah’s current hate crimes law applies only to misdemeanor offenses and has never been successfully prosecuted.
“It is impossible to really understand this issue and not come to the conclusion that the state of Utah needs to act,” Thatcher said.
During Thursday’s committee hearing, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill shared a personal experience that occurred shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. He said he was leaving court and walking near 400 South and State Street in Salt Lake City when three men in a truck drove by and yelled out that Gill was a “sand n----r” who should “go home or we’ll f---ing kill you and your family.”
“I thought immediately for members of the Indian community and those who look like me,” Gill said. “That fear is genuine.”
Gill previously has been critical of Utah’s hate crimes law and said that Thatcher’s bill “finds that balanced approach” for prosecutors to consider enhanced charges for victim-targeting crimes.
Representatives from the United Jewish Federation of Utah, Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and Catholic Diocese of Utah also spoke in favor of SB103.
But Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, objected to the bill’s classification of potential victims. Current law treats all victims equally, she said, while SB103 would exclude some individuals while offering legal protections to others.
Ruzicka said she and her family have been threatened because of her work with the Eagle Forum, but her status as a public political figure would not result in enhanced penalties if she were the target of a crime.
“When you make lists,” Ruzicka said, “you leave people out.”
The list of victim classifications was also questioned by Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack. SB103 was amended to garner more support among Senate Republicans, with the addition of attributes such as age, marital status and the school a victim attended potentially qualifying for enhanced criminal penalties.
“This isn’t a hate crimes bill," Boyack said. “I have deep concerns with its structure and the list that we have before us.”
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said there is a risk of broadening criminal enhancements beyond efficacy. He gave the example of drug possession enhancements in the vicinity of schools, parks and churches and quipped that the only way to avoid those penalties in Logan is to be flying over the city in an airplane.
But he added that passing SB103 would signal that Utah is serious about crimes that target victims and generate fear within a community.
“I wish — oh how I wish — that passing this law would solve the problem,” Hillyard said. “It won’t.”
Thatcher agreed with Hillyard, saying his bill would not end hate crimes but could help to mitigate them.
“Let us not fool ourselves; this will not solve everything,” Thatcher said. “But it will make things better. It will move us in the right direction.”
Many of Utah’s recent high-profile hate crimes incidents have occurred in Salt Lake City, where members of the City Council expressed support for the bill at its meeting Tuesday.
“The stories that have occurred in Salt Lake City are particularly important,” said Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton, who is gay.
He said he is frustrated with the dialogue around the bill because he believes some lawmakers have a fundamental misunderstanding of the proposal, fearing that it offers special protection for some classes and not others.
“Everyone has a sexual orientation,” he argued. “Everyone has a race.”
The bill will now move to the full Senate for consideration.
Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this article.