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Editorial: A hasty, headline-driven hate-crimes bill

Flowers, candles and other items are placed in memory of Heather Heyer, whose image is seen in this picture, and for those affected by the violence at the site where a vehicle smashed into counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 24.
(MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EPA)

Last month’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., was a sickening spectacle that ended in a horrific act of violence when a driver crashed into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. It’s not surprising that those events are reverberating nationwide, including in Sacramento.

But a new proposal to amend California’s hate-crimes law to make it easier to punish offenses against “allies” of victims of racism, while well-intentioned, contains vague language that could actually complicate the attempt to bring violent criminals to justice. It isn’t even clear that the bill, SB 630, would apply to circumstances such as Heyer’s killing, for which James Alex Fields has been charged with second-degree murder and other offenses.

“Heather Heyer’s killer could not be charged with a hate crime because Heather herself does not fall within the law’s definition of a protected class,” complained Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), the bill’s sponsor. “SB 630 addresses this ambiguity to ensure that those who commit a hate act, regardless of the status of the victim, can be prosecuted fully and appropriately.”

The definition of hate crimes in California should be altered only after careful debate, not as part of a rushed reaction to a tragedy in another state.

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But California’s definition of hate crimes already includes crimes against people who have an “association” with members of protected classes (victims selected because of their race, gender, nationality, religion, disability or sexual orientation). That definition applies to both the “stand-alone” crime of interfering with the civil rights of a member of a protected group and the additional penalties that can be imposed on someone convicted of a crime if the victim was targeted because he belonged to a protected class. “Association” is defined to include “advocacy for” or “identification with” members of protected groups, among other things.

Skinner’s bill would expand the definition of “association” to include “active representation, defense or support of” members of a protected class. But how does “support of” differ from “advocacy for”? Presumably it’s meant to cover a broader category of activity, but how broad? Would wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt count as “support of” African Americans? How about demonstrating in support of affirmative action?

Far from eliminating ambiguities about what constitutes a “hate act,” this bill seems to create new ones.

The definition of hate crimes in California should be altered only after careful debate, not as part of a rushed reaction to a tragedy in another state. But this proposal has been put on a fast track by having its language inserted over the text of a bill the Senate passed earlier this year, a procedure known as “gut and amend.” The Legislature would be far better off taking its time and canvassing a range of lawyers and judges about the consequences of any new definition, not just the prosecutors, such as Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley, who support a change in the law.

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Finally, this proposal seems to reflect the popular misconception that an act of violence can’t be adequately punished unless it is designated a “hate crime.” That attitude has led to an expansion in the number of protected classes covered by hate-crime laws. Most recently, there has been a campaign to declare crimes against police officers “hate crimes.”

Hate-crime laws serve a useful purpose in punishing acts that are clearly motivated by bigotry. But they need to be carefully designed and not enacted, or amended, in response to the headlines of the day.

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