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A legislative committee on Thursday advanced a bill to strengthen Utah's hate-crimes laws, giving prosecutors a mechanism for enhancing the penalties against defendants whose actions are motivated by bias.
"I voted against these bills in the past," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George said as he introduced the proposal. "I falsely believed that a crime is a crime. That's not the case. If a person paints a swastika on a synagogue, what's the intent? Yes, it's to make graffiti, but it's also intimidation against the Jewish community."
Utah's existing laws, Urquhart said, lack sufficient heft to be successfully used by state prosecutors.
SB107 passed a committee by a vote of 5-1 and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
SB107 would stiffen the penalties for a crime by allowing prosecutors to increase by one step the level of charges they file.
That would mean, for example, that a class B misdemeanor could become a class A, or a third-degree felony could become a second-degree felony. If the crime were a first-degree felony, the hate-crime element would be applied as a sentencing enhancement.
The bill would require prosecutors to meet the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard in court and include protections for free speech and association. That means a person's statements or membership in an organization could not be used against him or her, unless those were directly linked to a crime.
Fear over so-called thought crimes was one argument raised against the bill Thursday.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill implored committee members to pass the bill, saying Utah's existing laws have no teeth and are almost impossible to use.
"We simply want a tool that is available to us so we can effectively address a measure of justice for our community," he said.
Utah's three existing laws do not define hate crime as being motivated by bias or hate and limit the use of sentencing enhancements to misdemeanor crimes. They also lack a list of protected classes.
Current law also requires prosecutors to prove that a crime has prohibited a person from exercising his or her constitutional rights a standard that prosecutors have said is difficult to meet.
State data show that since 1992, police departments statewide have reported 1,279 hate crimes to the Utah Department of Public Safety. Of those, 49 percent of victims were targeted for their race, 20 percent tor religion, 17 percent for ethnicity, 14 percent for sexual orientation and 1 percent because of disabilities.
A second objection was the list of protected classes included in the bill's definition of a hate crime. That includes: "ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation."
"We keep creating categories," said Laura Bunker, president of United Families International. "This list is getting so long that it is alphabetized."
Bunker's particular objection was to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity, which she said would "undermine the historic balance" Utah lawmakers worked to achieve in passing non-discrimination laws last year that protected both the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and also protected religious freedom.
Utah is one of 44 states with hate crimes laws on the books, but the only one that does not include a list of protected classes, University of Utah law professor Cliff Rosky said.
The list, which also appears in the federal hate-crimes law, has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as constitutional, Paul Boyden, director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, told the committee.
"I don't believe this is establishing special classes," Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said. "It's not saying we are going to protect one color of skin, and not another … we're looking at motivation, we are looking at intent."
Only Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, voted against the bill, saying he struggled with the idea of categories that protect some, but not others.
"I agree with a lot of what I've heard," Weiler said. "What I can't get over in my mind is, if I'm targeted because I like Justin Bieber … if I'm targeted because I'm overweight, if I'm targeted because I'm a BYU fan, those would not be protected."
Urquhart said drawing some laughter that Weiler would not be protected if he was targeted for his devotion to BYU football, but he would be protected if the attack was motivated by his Mormon religion.
"Why are we here in this state? We're here because Mormons were lynched. Mormons were murdered. Mormons were persecuted to chase them out," Urquhart said. "It was a crime against a religion."
Utah, the senator said, should draw a hard line against those types of message crimes.
"Why do we pass criminal legislation? They're on the books because there is behavior that is abhorrent," he said. "If [people] are committing acts against the communities that make up the tapestry of America, Utah needs to clearly state we're not going to accept that."