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Hate Crimes

Federal Hate Crime Laws - 18 U.S. Code § 249

While many individual states have passed legislation outlawing certain "hate crimes," it is also a federal crime to cause bodily injury or attempt to do so against anyone precisely because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

Federal Hate Crime Laws - 18 U.S. Code § 249

This law is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 249, and depending on the circumstances and the injury done to the victim, a person convicted of a federal hate crime could be sentenced to life in prison.

When federal prosecutors determine that a crime was committed against someone based on specific characteristics of the victim, the perpetrator could be subjected to enhanced penalties under state or federal hate crime laws. Federal hate crime legislation lists the elements and sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

18 U.S.C. §249 says, “Whoever willfully causes bodily injury to someone or, through using a firearm, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to anyone, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person, shall be fined and imprisoned for up to ten years or life in prison if death results or the offense includes kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to kill.”

The prosecution for a hate crime falls under the umbrella of a civil rights violation. If convicted, federal statutes impose harsh legal penalties.

Thus, if you were accused of any civil rights violation, you could face charges under federal laws and would need to retain an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. Let's review these laws more closely below.

18 U.S.C. § 249 Explained

Also known as The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, Title 18 U.S.C. 249 was passed to fill in some gaps and strengthen the law so prosecutors could more effectively apprehend and prosecute hate crimes offenders. This accounts for some of the specific scenarios in the law, which might not be covered in other hate crimes laws.

Specific Hate Crimes Addressed by the Law 

18 U.S.C. 249 makes it a federal felony to commit either of the following offenses under the category of a hate crime:

  • Willfully cause bodily injury; or
  • Attempt to cause bodily injury using fire, a firearm, explosives, or another dangerous weapon.

People Protected by the Hate Crimes Law 

18 U.S.C. 249 makes it a felony to commit either of the acts above against victims based on their actual or perceived association with the following:

  • Their specific race, color, religion, or national origin in general; OR
  • Their religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability IF the action involves crossing state lines or affects interstate or foreign commerce. This provision covers hate crimes across state boundaries where individual state laws would only cover crimes within their respective state.

"Actual or Perceived" 

One key element in this law is the phrase "actual or perceived" [race, religion, etc.]. This is significant because it extends the definition of a hate crime to protect victims who are perceived to have a protected characteristic, even if the assailant is mistaken.

Thus, if you injure someone for being Jewish when they aren't Jewish, you are still guilty of a federal hate crime, the same as if the victim were, in fact, Jewish.

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: Arnold is angered over the growing presence of Muslims within his community, so he sucker-punches a man wearing Middle-Eastern garb, causing him to fall back and break his arm.

Penalties for Federal Hate Crimes

Arnold may be charged with a federal hate crime for causing bodily injury to someone based on their perceived religion.

EXAMPLE 2: Jake, a white nationalist, positions himself outside a mall in a predominantly black neighborhood and starts shooting randomly at black people coming out of the mall. Even if he fails to hit anyone, Jake can be charged with a federal hate crime for attempting to injure black people using a firearm.

EXAMPLE 3: A group of men from a local town corner a transgender man and begin to beat him and kick him mercilessly while issuing transphobic epithets against him. He is severely injured and left for dead.

While the assailants may be charged with a hate crime under other state or federal laws, they will NOT be charged under U.S.C. 249 because their gender identity-related hate crime did not involve interstate commerce nor cross state lines.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 13 lists the federal statutes dealing with civil rights violations, which include the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 241 – this stature makes it a crime to conspire to injure, suppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in the United States into being unable to exercise or enjoy their constitutional rights;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 242 – this statute makes it unlawful to deprive someone of rights under the color of law;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 243 – this statute prohibits excluding anyone from serving on the jury because of their race or color;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 244 – this statute prohibits those in public places in the United States from discriminating against people wearing a military uniform;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 245 – this statute prohibits interfering with someone's lawful right to vote, obtain benefits, apply for or become employed by U.S. agencies, or participate in federal programs;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 246 – this statute makes it unlawful to directly or indirectly deprive people of their employment, position, work, or other benefits;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 247 – this statute addresses criminal conduct concerning destroying religious property because it is religious;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 248 – this statute prohibits blocking access to reproductive health services using threats or force, intentionally causing injury or damaging clinic property.

What Are the Penalties for Violating 16 U.S.C. 249?

The penalties for violating 18 U.S.C. § 249 will depend on the specific circumstances of each case, but they can be pretty severe. In general, anyone who is convicted of a federal hate crime under this law can be sentenced to:

  • Imprisonment for up to 10 years; or
  • A fine of up to $250,000.

However, in certain conditions, the maximum sentence for this hate crime may be extended to life imprisonment. This is the case if the crime involves any of the following:

What Are the Defenses for Federal Hate Crime Charges?

If you have been charged with a federal hate crime, a good attorney will seek either to completely exonerate you from the violent offense or remove the hate crime element from the charges.

Defenses for Federal Hate Crime Charges

This could include changing the venue to a state crime rather than a federal one. The most common defenses include are discussed below. 

Perhaps we can argue that you did not willfully injure or attempt to injure the victim. In other words, the injury was accidental.

Perhaps we can argue that you did not participate in a hate crime. For example, you may have been present or part of a group where specific individuals committed the crime, but you were not a participant.

Perhaps we can argue that you did not target the alleged victim based on a protected characteristic. You may have attacked the person but did not do so based on race, religion, or other protected attributes.

Contact our law firm to review the details and legal options if you were accused of a hate crime. Perhaps we can negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a favorable resolution.

Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. We serve clients across the United States on federal criminal issues. You can contact us for a case review by phone or by filling out the contact form.

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