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    Accused of a hate crime in Houston? Learn how Texas defines a hate crime and what you can do if you’re wrongfully accused

    A hate crime is a threat or act committed against a person or property due to race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. When someone has committed a “hate crime,” they have usually performed an act of violence, harassment, or other misconduct due to their bias or prejudice against a particular person or group of people.

    Whether the victim actually falls within the designated group makes no difference as long as the person committing the crime thought the victim belonged to that specific group.

    What underlying acts can be considered hate crimes?

    Under Texas law, the underlying offenses that can be considered hate crimes include all of the following:

    The critical factor in any of these crimes lies in their motivation. These offenses become elevated to hate crimes if the person committing a crime does so based on their perception of the victim’s membership in a specific group and their motivation of bias or prejudice against that group.

    What groups are protected under hate crime laws?

    The Texas Penal Code specifically outlines protected groups pertaining to hate crimes. The intent behind defining these groups is to provide elevated penalties for crimes committed against victims belonging to a protected group. 

    According to Texas law, a crime may be elevated to a hate crime if the victim is targeted because of any of the following real or perceived characteristics:

    • Color
    • Race
    • Religion
    • Disability
    • National origin
    • Age
    • Gender
    • Ancestry
    • Sexual preference

    What does intent mean?

    Not every crime against someone in a protected group is a hate crime. A prosecutor must demonstrate that the underlying act was committed with intent. The word “intent,” when used in criminal law, refers to the person’s state of mind when committing a crime. 

    To determine if the offense against a protected person or group was motivated by hate, prosecutors look to see if the defendant intended to commit the crime because of some bias or prejudice against the victim’s perceived status as a protected group member.

    A defendant may use racial slurs and other hateful language toward a victim, calling it freedom of speech. However, the First Amendment does not protect all free speech, including fighting words, defamation, or true threats.

    How do prosecutors prove a crime is a hate crime?

    To prove that a crime was motivated by hate, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the underlying crime was motivated by prejudice toward the victim’s status, such as assaulting someone because of their perceived sexual preference.

    Hate crimes, or bias-motivated crimes, require specific types of proof to elevate them from the underlying crime itself. While somewhat tricky, evidence of bias can reveal itself through the defendant’s strong opinions or language against the victim or protected group.

    Prosecutors may also use various forms of evidence to show explicit hatred-driven intent, such as information from witnesses or hate symbols at the crime scene. Other forms of evidence include:

    • Affiliations with extremist groups
    • Defendant’s writings, graffiti or hate speech
    • Social media communications
    • Tattoos or clothing that display hateful or extremist words or symbols
    • The nature of the crime and how it was committed
    • The defendant’s history of committing other hate crimes

    Innocent until proven guilty

    The 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens that no one shall be “deprived of life, property or liberty without following the due process of law.”

    What are the punishments for hate crimes in Texas?

    The criminal penalty for a hate crime is determined by a variety of factors. As with most crimes, the penalty for a hate crime is influenced by the motivation for the crime, the use of force or weapons and the eventual outcome of the crime.

    If the prosecuting attorney prosecutes the offense as a hate crime, the underlying crime’s range of penalties is elevated to the next level, as shown in the hate crime laws in Texas Penal Code 12.47. 

    For example, a Class C misdemeanor that was shown to involve hatred toward the victim’s gender preference would be elevated to a Class B misdemeanor. However, a Class A misdemeanor would not be elevated to a felony; instead, the defendant would get an additional 180 days of jail time.

    Felony versus Misdemeanor

    What are the differences between felonies and misdemeanors? Understand the varying severity, potential consequences, and how these classifications can impact the legal process and your rights.

    In most cases, a crime that is determined to be a hate crime may be subject to additional or enhanced penalties. That is to say, there may be extra punishments added on to the original sentence or the punishments handed down may be enhanced or lengthened.

    For example, a person who might be sentenced to community supervision and anger management courses for a simple assault may be sentenced to jail time for a similar event that was motivated by bias or prejudice.

    Hate crime punishments can include:

    • Additional time in jail or prison
    • Mandatory anger management treatment
    • Mandatory restitution to the victims
    • Additional financial penalties

    Essentially, hate crime laws serve to fight back against hate crimes by making the punishments for these offenses more severe and lengthy when compared to the punishments for non-prejudice based offenses.

    When does a hate crime become a federal crime?

    A state-level hate crime typically becomes a federal crime when it involves extraordinary circumstances. The federal government defines hate crimes similarly to Texas, although the protected groups under federal law were expanded in the 2009 Hate Crime Prevention Act to include gender, disability and LGBTQ groups.

    What are the punishments for federal hate crimes?

    The punishment for a federal hate crime is typically more severe than state punishments. 

    If a defendant is found guilty of attempting to cause or causing bodily harm to a person belonging to a protected group, they can receive a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine.

    If the crime involves more severe actions such as kidnapping, sexual abuse or death of the victim, the defendant can face up to life in prison and multiple fines.

    What potential defenses can be used against a hate crime charge?

    A criminal defense attorney can use several potential defenses for a hate crime charge. These defenses can include the following:

    • Proving the defendant’s identity was mistaken
    • Arguing that the prosecution has insufficient evidence
    • Proving that the defendant acted in self-defense
    • Providing evidence that discredits the prosecution’s claim that the act was motivated by bias

    A skilled criminal defense attorney can help defendants determine the best defense strategy for their case to ensure their rights are protected.

    What are hate crime hoaxes, and why are they increasing?

    Hate crime hoaxes are false claims of hate crimes, and they’ve been happening more frequently. A database of hate-crime allegations compiled by Kentucky State University political science professor Wilfred Reilly and published in his recent book Hate Crime Hoax revealed that less than 30% of these cases were genuine. 

    One recent example of such hate crime hoaxes includes the Jussie Smollett case, where Mr. Smollett staged an attack in which he claimed 2 men beat him, put a noose around his neck and covered him in bleach. His claims were later proven to be fabricated and Mr. Smollett was sentenced to 5 months in jail and more than 2 years of probation.

    Other hate crimes proven as hoaxes include a woman disfiguring her own face with acid, claiming a black man attacked her, and a gay Texas pastor, claiming Whole Foods sold him a cake with a slur written in icing. According to a Manhattan Institute article, the recent rise in these and other hate crime hoaxes is partly driven by individuals and groups interested in exaggerating racial and other tensions in the U.S.

    Protecting Your Rights: Legal Defense When Accused of a Hate Crime

    A defense attorney may fight back against charges of a hate crime by arguing that the crime was not motivated by prejudice or bias. Because the only difference between a standard offense and a hate crime offense is the element of prejudice, this will likely be the primary point of contention in the defense’s case.

    For example, if a person is brought up on charges for getting into a fight with a member of a racial minority, the attorney may argue that the defendant was under extreme emotional stress and that he was provoked by an insult from the victim. If the attorney can convince the jury that the crime was not the result of racial prejudice, the additional hate crime charges may be dropped.

    Contact a Houston criminal defense attorney

    If you or a loved one has been accused of a hate crime, it’s crucial to seek the assistance of a skilled criminal defense attorney who understands the complexities of these cases. A conviction can result in serious consequences, including imprisonment, fines and social repercussions that can negatively impact your life long after your sentence has been served.

    If you live in the Houston area, protect your rights by contacting The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp today to schedule your free case evaluation.

    Contact Matthew Sharp