Ruling Unlikely to Hinder State Prosecution Efforts : Hate crimes: Victims denounce the decision, but experts see little effect because the California statute is narrowly drawn.
Victims of hate crimes across Southern California denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down a Minnesota law banning cross-burning Monday, but prosecutors said that the decision is not likely to thwart their efforts to convict perpetrators.
Because California’s cross-burning statute is more narrowly drawn than the St. Paul, Minn., ordinance the high court invalidated, most legal experts predicted that it might survive.
Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), who spearheaded the passage last year of an anti-hate-crime bill, said he believes that the California law is distinct enough so as to be constitutionally defensible.
Umberg added, however, that the decision “is certainly cause for alarm,” and he predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court will probably have the last say. “Once someone is charged” under the California law, “I’m sure it will be tested,” he said.
Even if the state’s law is overturned, prosecutors said, it would be no great loss. District attorneys who specialize in hate crimes say they normally use civil rights statutes--rather than the cross-burning law--to win convictions in such cases.
“I’m not worried,” said Frank Sundstedt, chief of the Organized Crime and Anti-Terrorist Division of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. “Once we catch these people, believe me, we’ll have an effective law to use against them.”
David Moon, who supervises hate crime prosecutions for the San Francisco district attorney’s office, agreed: “The laws we use most are not in jeopardy. I don’t view this as a serious setback at all.”
Victims of racially and religiously motivated threats and violence, however, lashed out angrily at the high court, warning that Monday’s decision would send a message that cross-burning and other acts of intimidation would now go unpunished.
“I think it will not do a lot to help race relations,” said Gina Lamourelle, who is black and owns a nursery school in Lake Forest that was vandalized last November with black swastikas and “KKK” initials. “Freedom of speech is very important, and freedom to be respected is important too.”
In Huntington Beach, the mother of two Japanese-Americans who were attacked and injured by whites earlier this month expressed worry that the ruling would lead to an “open season” on minorities by skinheads.
“It seems that we’re not going to be protected,” said the woman, who fears retaliation and asked that her name not be used. “Asians can get militant just like the white supremacists. They can get nasty. But I don’t want that to happen.”
But George Williams, the president of the Orange County Urban League, said he did not think that the ruling would spark an increase in hate crimes. Williams drew a parallel to a recent Supreme Court decision allowing flag-burning as a means of personal expression: “Since that ruling occurred, you haven’t seen a wave of people going out and burning the flag. I don’t think this decision will have that effect either. However, it could legitimize those fringe sectors that have been doing this type of thing.”
Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said he was uncertain about the ramifications of the court’s decision, but he predicted that it would not derail efforts to curb hate crimes in the county.
“My basic feeling is this will certainly not decrease our community’s efforts to eliminate hate-related incidents and crime,” Kennedy said. “It will not dent our resolve to rid our community of this cancer.”
Experts who have studied hate crimes expressed concern about the timing of the ruling--it comes amid heightened racial tensions in Los Angeles and on the heels of civil unrest in other cities nationwide.
“It’s unfortunate, I’m disappointed and I think it sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” said Eugene Mornell, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. “I’m sure there are a number of white supremacists who will view this ruling as a license to burn crosses.”
Hate crimes--ranging from the spray-painting of racial slurs in the dead of night to vicious assaults on homosexuals--have been on the rise across the United States for several years, experts say. National and state statistics are not available, but in Los Angeles County, there were 672 hate crimes in 1991--an increase of 22% over the previous year.
Orange County experienced 125 incidents last year. Experts say most were prompted by the rapid diversification of the county’s population in the last two decades, which have seen large influxes of Asians and Latinos.
The victims of the Orange County attacks were varied. They include a homosexual man who was shot in Laguna and a Chinese-American boy who was beaten by white supremacist youths at a park in Fullerton. During the Persian Gulf War, the home of one Asian-Indian family was burglarized and defaced with spray-painted letters a foot high that said: “Arabs Go Home. You Will Die.”
Kennedy said he believes that anger at racial minorities has been exacerbated by the soft economy. “People who look and sound different are easy scapegoats,” he said.
In response to the increasing violence, 46 states have enacted laws in that make it a crime to burn crosses, display Nazi swastikas or flaunt other symbols intended to intimidate blacks, Jews or members of other groups.
Under the California law, it is a crime if “any person . . . burns or desecrates a cross or other religious symbol . . . or places a sign, mark, symbol, emblem, or other physical impression, including but not limited to a Nazi swastika, on the private property of another . . . for the purpose of terrorizing” the owner or occupant.
A first offense is punishable by up to one year in county jail or a fine of $5,000, and subsequent violations carry an additional one-year jail term and a $15,000 fine. The law also makes it a felony, punishable by up to three years in state prison, to engage in a pattern of such terrorism.
Times staff writers Leslie Berkman, Michael Connelly, Carl Ingram, Richard Simon and Ron Soble contributed to this story. Also contributing were special correspondents Robert Barker and Frank Messina.