Most crimes in the U.S. are prosecuted on the state level under state laws. This includes hate crimes and each state has its own version of hate crime legislation. There are also federal hate crime laws, but unless the circumstances are extraordinary, federal officials usually defer to their state counterparts.
Hate crimes themselves are considered “penalty enhancements” in which state and federal prosecutors can charge a person with an additional penalty that adds to the punishment. For example, a misdemeanor assault can be elevated to a felony charge with greater punishment if prosecutors add a hate crime charge.
Texas hate crime law
The backbone of Texas hate crime laws is the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, signed into law in 2001. The law strengthens penalties for crimes motivated by race, color, religion, sex, disability, age, sexual preference or national origin.
Texas law previously considered hate crimes to be crimes motivated by bias or prejudice but did not list specific categories. The law was signed by Gov. Rick Perry over fears the bill would “create new classes of citizens.” The law failed in the legislature two years earlier when lawmakers complained it included gay Texans. Then-Gov. George W. Bush, refused to support the measure, saying “all crimes are hate crimes.”
In 1998, Byrd, 49, accepted a ride from Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King near Jasper, Texas. The three white men drove Byrd – a black man who was disabled – to a deserted area and beat him, then chained him by the ankles to their vehicle and dragged him for three miles down an asphalt road until he died.
Brewer was executed by lethal injection in 2011. King’s execution is scheduled for April 24, 2019. Berry received a life sentence.
Federal hate crimes law
The first federal hate crimes law was passed in 1968, making it illegal to use force against anyone based on race, color, religion or national origin.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law expanded hate crimes to include crimes based on disability, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Department of Justice says it has charged more than 300 people with hate crimes since 2009.
The state and federal laws are complicated. If you or a loved one is a victim of a hate crime, it is in your best interest to contact an experienced attorney to receive guidance on the best way to protect yourself and your family.