Police Abuse Hate Crime Laws to Enhance Their Own Power
Previously I wrote about efforts in the US Congress to pass legislation that would make police officers an even more protected class by allowing federal prosecutors to charge individuals with committing "hate crimes" against them. While that legislation has not yet passed in the Senate and will hopefully die, some police officers have found other ways to use hate crimes legislation to their benefit.
The state of Pennsylvania has a hate crime statute known as "ethnic intimidation," applying to a person committing an offense "with malicious intention toward the race, color, religion or national origin of another individual or group of individuals..." The effect of the statute is to enhance the grading of the actual criminal offense committed by one degree, potentially turning a 1st degree misdemeanor into a 3rd degree felony.
The statute was used against Robbie Sanderson , a 52-year-old black man, who was arrested for stealing around $100 worth of merchandise from a CVS Pharmacy. According to the affidavit filed by the Crafton Borough police, during the arrest, he called the officers "Nazis," "skinheads" and "Gestapo," and told one officer that he would find that officer's wife and have sex with her. Sanderson was charged with "felony ethnic intimidation" and "misdemeanor terroristic threats" for these comments.
Pennsylvania law enforcement has used this statute in a number of cases to punish those who insult them: Sannetta Amoroso, a 43-year-old black woman, was charged with felony ethnic intimidation for saying "I'm going to kill all you white b****es" and "death to all you white b****es" while attempting to report a crime to the McKees Rocks Police. Steven Ray Oller was charged with misdemeanor ethnic intimidation for threatening officers and using a racial slur directed at a Latino officer during an arrest for DUI. Anthony Payne was also charged with misdemeanor ethnic intimidation for calling an officer "Gandhi mother****er" during a welfare check at Payne's home.
All of these charges were later dropped and rightfully so, as the text of the statute states that ethnic intimidation cannot be a standalone offense, but rather applies when another crime is motivated by malicious intention toward race, color, religion, or national origin. The officers in these cases blatantly misapplied the law, but faced no adverse consequences for doing so. This should come as no surprise; despite the assurances of apologists for hate crime legislation that it "only appl[ies] when there is an underlying crime to prosecute," this is clearly not the case in practice.
Furthermore, police apply it for ideological reasons outside of the stated intentions of the law. For example, two teenagers in Baltimore were charged with a hate crime for setting fire to a Trump campaign sign. We are on the slippery slope we were assured wouldn't occur.
What's very strange about the whole issue is that those organizations that claim to hold civil liberties in the highest regard, including the 1st Amendment and due process, are those that tend to be most in favor of such sentencing enhancements. They also tend to deny the utility of harsher prison sentences for reducing most other types of crime; as such, they are either inconsistent in their views about harsher sentencing or view the purpose of hate crimes legislation as purely symbolic. Neither alternative reflects well upon them. What is indisputable, however, is that such legislation gives police officers greater discretion and power over individuals. This is something about which those calling themselves civil libertarians need to think carefully.