What is a hate crime?
A hate crime is any offense committed against you or your property because of your race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, disability, gender or sexual orientation. Anybody can be a victim. White, heterosexual males can be victims, as can African-American women. The language of the law is very broad and protects everyone, not any particular group.
To qualify as a hate crime, a criminal’s bias must be a substantial factor in causing the criminal to act or attack.
Also, it does not matter if you are a member of the group that your attacker thinks you are, only that your attacker perceives you to be a member of that group. If someone hits you because he thinks you are Hispanic, but you are White or Native American, you are still a victim of a hate crime. If an attacker beats up your friend thinking your friend is gay, but your friend is actually straight, your friend is a victim of a hate crime. Law enforcement can prosecute the criminal for the hate crime without waiting for him to strike again.
What is a hate incident?
A hate incident is a bias motivated act that does not rise to the level of a hate crime. So, if someone uses a racial or other slur against another, it is probably not a hate crime, rather it is a hate incident. These occurrences are frequently frightening and upsetting, but they are not criminal.
What if you witness a bias incident that does not amount to a crime?
It is important to record bias incidents for educational, informational and statistical purposes. Do not be frustrated if law enforcement personnel tell you that what you experienced was not a crime. We are interested in tracking hate incidents because hate-motivated attacks often occur in the same area where these incidents happen. Studying trends, may in turn, assist in preventing and solving crimes.
If you hear a person yelling racial or other bias slurs on a public street, on campus, or shopping mall, notify an authority. For example, you may contact a store or restaurant manager in close proximity. At a school or public building, notify security or the administration. Responding to insults yourself may provoke a physical attack against you.
If you find or receive racist flyers, notify your local law enforcement agency as soon as possible.
Are hate crimes laws constitutional? Don’t they interfere with free speech?
Hate crimes laws are constitutional. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have ruled many times that these statues are legitimate, lawful efforts to protect our communities.
Anti-bias laws aimed at criminal actions do not violate important free speech rights. The courts tell us that speech may not be protected when coupled with violent actions. For instance, yelling a slur at somebody and then hitting him, or threatening to hurt him, is a crime. However, dissemination of racist flyers, name-calling and other non-criminal conduct while offensive, is not criminal.