Hate crime laws are state and federal statutes that generally increase penalties and the seriousness of charges for traditional criminal offenses (assault, aggravated assault, intimidation, murder, arson, vandalism, etc.) when the underlying criminal acts are motivated by the victim’s identity as part of a group or groups—such as race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. And some hate crime laws are independent criminal offenses.
Under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, a person cannot be prosecuted solely for their beliefs. Some beliefs may be offensive to others and may be untrue or based on false stereotypes, but it is not a crime to express offensive beliefs or to join with others who share similar views. But the First Amendment does not protect a person who commits a crime based on the victim’s race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.
For example, the Shepard-Byrd Act makes it a federal crime to willfully cause bodily injury using a dangerous weapon—or to attempt to do so—because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability—where the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction. The Shepard-Byrd Act is the first statute allowing federal criminal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. See 18 U.S.C. §249.
Another federal law prohibits the intentional defacement, damage, or destruction of religious real property because of the religious nature of the property, where the crime affects interstate or foreign commerce, or because of the race, color, or ethnic characteristics of the people associated with the property. The statute also criminalizes the intentional obstruction by force, or threat of force of any person in the enjoyment of that person’s free exercise of religious beliefs. See 18 U.S.C. §247.
Federal law also makes it a crime to use or threaten to use force to willfully interfere with any person because of the person’s race, color, religion, or national origin when the person is participating in a federally-protected activity such as public education, employment, jury service, travel, or the enjoyment of public accommodations—or helping another person do so. See 18 U.S.C. §245.
And federal law makes it a crime to use or threaten to use force to interfere with housing rights based on the victim’s race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin. See 42 U.S.C. §3631.
Before the Civil Rights Division of the United States government prosecutes a hate crime, the U.S. Attorney General (or someone designated by the Attorney General) must certify in writing that (1) the state in which the crime was committed does not have jurisdiction; (2) the state has requested that the federal government assume jurisdiction; (3) the verdict or sentence obtained for state law charges did not demonstratively vindicate the federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence; or (4) a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.
Most states and the District of Columbia also have hate crime laws. These laws are generally located in the state’s statutes—often in the penal or criminal code.