As he watched Utah Gov. Gary Herbert sign a bill to give the state’s unenforceable hate crimes law some teeth, Luis Lopez had mixed feelings Tuesday.
He was happy to know that future victims of bias-motivated crimes will be protected under state law. But the scars on his face from an attack last fall — when a man showed up at his family’s Salt Lake City tire shop and allegedly whacked him in the head with a metal pole, knocking him unconscious — served as a reminder that the law had come too late to help him.
Alan Dale Covington had allegedly shouted “I’m here to kill a Mexican” before the assault of which he is accused. Lopez suffered a shattered cheekbone and eye socket and a collapsed sinus. But Salt Lake County prosecutors were unable to charge Covington with hate crime enhancements because of shortcomings in state code.
“It is good to know that there is something now to back up people in case of another situation like mine,” Lopez said at the bill signing. “It’s good to know there’s something now that protects people. ... It’s kind of hard to explain how I feel about it.”
After an hourlong, and at times emotional, public signing ceremony for SB103 on Tuesday in the Capitol Rotunda, people convicted of a crime in Utah could now face additional penalties if it’s proved they targeted their victims based on membership in a protected class — including ancestry, disability, gender identity, national origin, age, military service, race, religion or sexual orientation.
The governor’s signature caps a multiyear effort to increase penalties for a person charged with a bias-motivated crime. The bill had struggled to gain traction in previous years, not receiving hearings in 2017 or 2018 and failing in the Senate in 2016.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and the bill’s sponsor, said the Lopez family’s trauma helped build some of the momentum behind his proposal in this year’s session.
“What happened to your family, it helped make it easier to put a face [to this issue], so we’re not just talking about a law, we’re talking about people — real people who needed help,” he told Lopez after the ceremony. “And I’m so sorry for what happened to you, and I’m so glad we got something positive out of it.”
Debate over the proposal in the state Legislature was sometimes impassioned as lawmakers talked about constituents, acquaintances and family members who have been targeted because of their race, ethnicity or religion.
While critics had raised concerns that SB103 would exclude certain people while offering special legal protections for others, advocates say enhanced penalties are important because hate crimes victimize not only the person directly attacked but also the communities they terrorize. They also pointed out that the state’s previous law, which had long been criticized as weak, had never resulted in a successful conviction.
Rep. Patrice Arent, the state’s only Jewish lawmaker; Sen. Derek Kitchen, the state’s only openly gay lawmaker; and Rep. Sandra Hollins, the only black member of the Utah Legislature, joined Herbert for the ceremony. All three have spoken publicly about their experiences either personally facing bias-motivated crimes or experiencing fear after attacks targeting their communities and said the bill’s passage sends an important message to all Utahns.
“Until today, it has been a failing of our state to allow people to commit a crime motivated by hateful belief without serious consequences,” Arent, D-Millcreek, said during her remarks. “Today, that ends. Today, we come together as a state to hold accountable those who commit crimes in the name of hate. Today, we stand together to ensure the safety and welfare of all our neighbors.”
Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, thanked her colleagues for rising to the occasion but cautioned that the new law won’t spell the end of hate.
“I am encouraged by what we have accomplished in the 2019 session, but this does not mean we have prevented all future hateful challenges and injustices from occurring,” she said. “But this law is a tool that we now have to fight against those injustices. We must continue to stay vigilant and commit to the well-being of all our brothers and sisters.”
After the bill’s years of failure in the state Legislature, Thatcher has speculated that a number of factors coalesced to lead to its passage this year. Perhaps the biggest change was that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has long been perceived to be against a tougher hate crimes law, clarified that the Utah-based faith is not opposed to the legislation and said a broad range of groups should be included.
Nearly nine of 10 Utah lawmakers are members of Utah’s predominant faith.
The addition of a variety of protected classes under the measure also likely lent it some momentum this year. In the final push to pass the bill in the House, members added “political expression” to what had been a list of protected characteristics, with some using the hypothetical example of a supporter of President Donald Trump being targeted for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
The bill’s signing ceremony Tuesday featured two musical numbers from One Voice Children’s Choir and included comments not only from state lawmakers but also from faith leaders and the Anti-Defamation League.
“For this religious community, it means that we have hope,” Bishop Scott Hayashi of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah said at the signing ceremony. “We have hope that we will be able to live and worship without being harassed because of what our religious tradition is. And let us understand that this is a hope, and it will take our efforts, our continued efforts, to make that hope a reality.”
Under the state’s former hate crimes law, only misdemeanor assaults could be enhanced as hate crimes. This update will enable enhancements for felonies as well against designated protected classes.
Herbert called the bill’s passage into law a “historic” event and thanked the lawmakers who have worked tirelessly to make it happen, dating back to the 1990s. But he also recognized the need for a broader, cultural shift.
“We in fact not only need to change the law but we need to have a change of heart,” he said. “That’s sometimes a little harder to do. But I think with the passage here of SB103, we in fact are sending a message that everybody, every person, every individual in our society is worthy of dignity, respect and love.”
Without any ceremonial flourish, Herbert on Tuesday also signed SB236, which adds language to state code stating that a school board candidate can either be a member of a political party or unaffiliated. That option already exists under the state’s current, partisan election law, which was struck down in court.
An appeal by the state is currently awaiting a ruling by the Utah Supreme Court.
The Salt Lake Tribune is partnering with ProPublica and newsrooms across the country to better understand the prevalence and nature of hate crimes, bias and prejudice. You can share your insights with us at sltrib.com/documentinghate and we may contact you for future stories.