Hate crimes bill now heads to the Utah House, as sponsor says ‘people have taken the time to dig in, to understand’

The Utah Senate passed a much debated update to the state’s hate crimes law Tuesday on a vote of 18-11, sending it to the House.

Two senators flipped their votes after supporting the bill on Monday: Ronald Winterton, R-Vernal, and Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan. Still, SB103 received the support of 12 Republicans and all six Senate Democrats in its final Senate vote.

With just more than a week left in the session, this is the furthest a hate crimes proposal has made it through the Legislature since failing in the Senate in 2016, and its bipartisan approval is seen as a major victory.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, the bill’s sponsor, said “the biggest hurdle” he had to overcome was to persuade his colleagues that a hate crimes enhancement wasn’t a thought crime, rather it would be tied to the actions of a suspect.

“This is tied to a specific and deliberate action and not thoughts and feelings,” he said after the vote. 'What you saw today was people have taken the time to dig in, to understand the issue”

If approved, Thatcher’s bill would allow judges to increase penalties for a crime if a defendant is convicted of targeting someone based on ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. Additional classes that would be protected under the bill include age, familial status, homelessness, marital status, matriculation, military service and status as a police officer or emergency responder to the list of protected classes.

A person must first be convicted of a crime before additional penalties would apply.

Under the state’s current hate crimes law, only misdemeanor assaults can be enhanced as hate crimes, which has never actually taken place, as prosecutors say the law is unworkable. This update would enable enhancements for felonies.

After years of perceived opposition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently announced that it is not opposed to the legislation, which some have speculated has boosted the bill this session. A number of recent hate crimes incidents in Salt Lake City have also likely created more momentum for the proposal this year.

Thatcher argued Tuesday that the ability to impose harsher penalties for people depending on their motives is “deeply ingrained” in the U.S. justice system.

“Sometimes an offender is a higher risk to society,” he said. “And when that happens, according to the entire functioning of our criminal justice system, we need to take that crime more seriously and we need to focus more resources on that offender. And that is what this bill does.”

Disagreements over what groups of people should be protected under the bill have dominated the conversation this year, and that bled into Tuesday’s debate. Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, who ultimately voted for the bill, said he would like to consider including additional classes in next year’s legislative session.

“Think about teachers, for example,” he said. “I’ve heard from a lot of my constituents who are teachers who say, ‘We are often targeted because of the fact that we have some authority and sometimes have to require our kids to do, our students to do things they may not like.’ And so they get their cars keyed and they get hate mail and they have the parents involved in the contentious things that are going on there.”

He also suggested adding people who raise livestock.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, supported Thatcher’s bill in both votes but proposed an amendment that ultimately failed during Monday’s debate that sought to add “creed” and “political belief” as protected categories. That would help protect people, he said, who may be targeted for their political beliefs or for wearing a Make America Great Again hat, for example.

With an 18-11 vote, Senate President Stuart Adams said the bill now goes “with some momentum" into the House, where it awaits a committee hearing.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.