Assault and Hate Crimes – When Can Assault Become More?

Recently, hate crimes in Alameda have escalated, and community members are caught in the middle. But, what is a hate crime, and how is it different from assault?

Hate Crimes: a (Not So) Simple Definition

The U.S. Department of Justice describes a hate crime as:

A crime + motivation for committing the crime based on bias = hate crime

What separates a hate crime from other criminal acts is motivation: if the offense is fueled by the need to harm someone based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or another characteristic, it is a hate crime. These criminal acts are the most extreme form of prejudice.

Hate crimes are not limited to assault, but they can include:

  • Arson
  • Murder
  • Vandalism
  • Sexual violence
  • Harassment

It may seem like a modern problem, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been investigating hate crimes since World War I. However, the role of investigators in hate crimes shifted when investigation and prosecution became a federal problem instead of just a local issue.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put the onus of protecting marginalized groups on society as a whole instead of leaving it to the victims. Now, as more people become aware of the scope of hatred against minorities in the U.S., it’s important to differentiate hate crimes from other criminal acts.

Examples of Assault vs. Hate Crimes

  1. A person attempts to return an item at a department store. The employee calmly informs the customer that the item is non-refundable, and the store cannot accept it. The customer proceeds to hurl insults and throws the item at the employee, causing a head wound.
  2. While visiting a theme park, an African American family is waiting in line for one of the roller coasters. Another visitor behind them pushes the family out of the way to get ahead in line. When the family asks the individual why they would do that, they call the family a racial slur. The individual also threatens to push them again if they don’t leave the park.

In example one, the customer does not use the employee’s race, ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics against them. They acted out in rage, but it was not a direct result of prejudice. While the crime resulted in serious physical and emotional harm, it wasn’t motivated by bias, making it an assault, not a hate crime.

However, in example two, the other theme park visitor clearly targeted and attacked the family out of hatred for African American and Black people. The individual used prejudice as a justification for violence and threatened further harm, making this a hate crime.

Hate Crimes and Punishment in Alameda County

The recent uptick in hate crimes in Alameda County is alarming to members of the community. Antisemitism, Asian hate, and prejudice against other people of color are unacceptable, but what can the justice system do to stop it?

Under California law, hate crimes may be punished by:

  • Up to one year in county jail
  • A fine of $5,000
  • A maximum of 400 hours of community service completed in less than 350 days

For convictions of murder, if the crime is deemed a hate crime, the accused could spend 25 years to life in prison.

Key Takeaway

Hate crimes are serious offenses, and the uptick in racially motivated violence in Alameda County is leading members of the community to call for the punishment of the offenders.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there is a thin line between assault and hate crimes. Wrongfully accusing someone of a hate crime can have serious consequences, and it may overshadow actual cases of violent prejudice.

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