Arrests for assaults that authorities say were racially motivated have been in the news a lot lately. These incidents have happened across the country, include here in Houston.
Among other things, these stories may make you wonder about Texas’ hate crime law and when prosecutors charge people with this crime. Here is a brief overview of that law and its effects, which may surprise you.
The state and federal hate crime statutes for Texas
Texas has had an anti-hate crime law since 2001, while the U.S. has had a federal hate crime law in place since 1968. These two laws act differently. The Texas law is a “sentence enhancer.” This means that when someone is convicted of a crime like assault and the prosecutor has convinced the jury that the defendant was motivated by the victim’s race, skin color, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, disability status or age, the prosecutor can seek a longer prison sentence.
Meanwhile, the federal statute makes such an act its own type of crime. It also includes crimes motivated by bias based on transgender status. However, federal courts do not have jurisdiction over every potential hate crime.
Rarely used laws
Prosecutors do not often charge defendants with hate crimes. A study found that from 2010 to 2015, there were 981 cases that appeared to potentially fit the description of hate crimes. Of those, just five ended in hate crime convictions.
Perhaps the biggest issue is with intent. To prove that a defendant committed a hate crime, the prosecution usually must prove that the defendant intended to do so. This is generally much more difficult than proving that the defendant committed the underlying crime. Thus, unless the case is high-profile or the defendant’s reasons for committing the crime are fairly clear, Texas prosecutors are unlikely to pursue the hate crime sentence enhancement.
Dealing with violent crime charges
If you have been charged with a violent crime like assault, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you make sense of the charges against you and explain your options.