Tim Pierce

A year ago, I knew little or nothing about the complex topic of hate crimes, but then Gov. Ned Lamont appointed me and Co-chair Amy Lin Meyerson to the Connecticut Hate Crimes Advisory Council.

Created by the legislature and composed of a wide swath of law enforcement leaders, Bar group presidents, community activists, heads of various state agencies and others, our main charge was to look into ways to improve Connecticut’s response to hate crimes.

Since last August, our subcommittees and working groups have delved deeply into myriad issues relating to the investigation, prosecution, and sentencing of hate crime offenders.

We have also examined possible preventive measures, including those relating to our school curricula. I urge everyone to look at the council’s website, which is filled with relevant information, including detailed statistics about hate crimes in Connecticut and references to controlling statutes. 

What is a hate crime?

Our best information indicates there were 103 hate crime victims in Connecticut last year, most of them committed against Blacks. But hate crime statistics are notoriously unreliable and the official numbers are unquestionably low.

Unfortunately, FBI statistics indicate that the number of hate crimes is going up nationally. Bereft of all the verbiage, and to simplify matters, under state law, a hate crime is one of a number of enumerated crimes — usually assaultive in nature — motivated by hate.

Note the use of the word motivated. If I perceive you to be Black, or Jewish, or Asian-American and I hit you over the head with a baseball bat I have committed a serious assault under state law but not necessarily a hate crime. But if a prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I was motivated by hate against Blacks — or Asian-Americans, or Jews, or other categories of people — then a hate crime has occurred. Incidentally, assaulting a white person when motivated by hate could also be a prosecutable hate crime.

Please understand that proving someone’s motive is notoriously difficult because none of us are mind-readers. Judging someone’s motive, therefore, usually requires us to draw inferences from facts to delve into a perpetrator’s mind. The public should understand that not every case which on the surface appears to be bias-driven is in fact motivated by hate.

Why do we need separate hate crimes laws?

The courts have upheld the legality of hate crimes laws and every state has them. Some people, however, question why there is a need for a separate category of crime when most hate crimes could be prosecuted through the use of traditional existing statutes. For example, to use the above hypothetical, if I assault you because I am motivated by racial hatred, I can already be charged with a very serious felony, assault in the first degree. Why then expose someone to a separate hate crime charge?

This question goes to the very heart of why we have hate crime laws. In the average assault, there is one victim, or two, who were chosen for reasons other than their race or other immutable characteristics. So if someone assaults a person of color because they saw them walk out of a bank and they want to rob them, the individual is victimized. But if it is proven that the motive for the assault was racial hatred, the criminal conduct also terrorizes the entire victim community.

In other words, in attacking one Black victim, to use a lamentable common example, the peace of mind and mental tranquility, and sense of safety, of the entire Black community is shaken. Obviously, the same is true for members of other communities, including the trans and disabled communities.

So the first reason there are such laws is because they take into account the trauma visited upon the entire victim community.

But there is another good reason for a separate category of hate crimes. Very simply, the existence of these hate crimes laws sends a loud and clear message to the world that society simply will not tolerate hate crimes as just another category of criminal conduct.

Hate crimes laws are a flat-out statement that society recognizes the deleterious, corrosive impact of hate crimes on our society and victim communities.

The Hon. Douglas Lavine of West Hartford is a judge of the Connecticut Appellate Court. He has been a member of the Connecticut Judiciary since 1993 and on the Appellate Court since 2006. Views expressed in this column are his alone.