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Can a person face federal charges for a hate crime?


Most residents of Washington and Idaho are probably at least somewhat aware of what a hate crime is. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a hate crime typically involves two elements: a crime as well as bias. Hate crimes can damage property, such as is the case with vandalism, or they can cause harm to people; hate crimes include murder, arson and the like. In particular, Congress has defined hate crimes as offenses against people or property which are motivated primarily by the offender's bias against a certain race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.

Fortunately, most local residents will not face hate crime charges. Still, if one does encounter these types of allegations, there is a chance they might be prosecuted in federal court. Just as a crime may or may not be a hate crime, a hate crime may or may not be a federal crime. State and local authorities actually handle most hate crimes cases, but when hate crimes are civil rights violations, the federal government may become involved in the ensuing investigation.

Two pieces of legislation demonstrate how seriously the federal government takes hate crimes. A 1994 federal law increased the penalties for hate crimes convictions, while a 2009 law expanded the federal government's ability to prosecute violent offenses committed against those belonging to the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community. Since the FBI is tasked in part with upholding Americans' civil rights, that agency will also investigate certain hate crimes. Interestingly, even when a hate crime does not involve federal charges being brought against a suspect, the FBI can still become involved.

Being accused of a hate crime is an overwhelming situation. As with all criminal charges, the defendant has civil rights just as the alleged victim does. Even the FBI itself acknowledges that hate, by itself, is not a crime; moreover, all Americans have key civil liberties and rights to freedom of speech that deserve protection. An attorney skilled in defending against federal charges can offer invaluable advice to anyone accused of a hate crime at the state or federal level.

Source: FBI.gov, "Hate crime - overview," accessed Nov. 13, 2015

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