Florida is now poised to join Maryland and Maine in treating crimes targeting the homeless as “hate crimes,” with increased penalties of up to five years for assaults on a homeless person.
The idea started out in Maryland as a parody. The legislation’s author, a socially-conservative state senator, was by his own admission “motivated by cynicism: He was offended by legislation adding sexual orientation to the list of protected categories, which includes race, religion and national origin.” So to parody it, he proposed adding all sorts of groups like the homeless to the protected list.
But his idea unexpectedly took off, as anti-poverty groups and homeless advocates backed his legislation to add the homeless to the state’s hate crimes law. And he came to view it as a good idea, based on what you might call “hate crimes envy”: wasn’t it only fair to add the homeless if gay people were already included, especially since homeless people were allegedly more “vulnerable,” more deserving, and had less political “clout?” (There is a related phenomenon called “censorship envy” that results in foreign hate speech laws getting broader and broader over time, as each minority group demands its own protection against political blasphemy.)
Lost in this train of reasoning is the fact that violence against the homeless is already forbidden by law, without any need for hate crimes laws. The idea that every “vulnerable” group needs its own hate crimes law threatens to leave criminal codes littered with special protections for an ever-growing laundry list of protected groups.
Turning crimes into “hate crimes” can also make prosecutions considerably more expensive. Often, it is easy to establish that a criminal committed a crime, but very difficult to establish precisely why the criminal committed the crime. A violent crime could have been committed because of personal animus against the victim (not a hate crime), an animus towards the victim’s group (a hate crime), or some combination of the two. A criminal may select victims partly out of greed and partly based on membership in a protected group (like a robber who disproportionately preys on women or the disabled based on their perceived vulnerability), making it hard to determine whether the crime is a hate crime. Proving why the criminal acted could add enormously to the expense of the prosecution even though the criminal is equally dangerous, and deserves to go to jail, regardless of why he committed the crime.
Moreover, homelessness is not an immutable characteristic, like race or gender, but rather is defined partly by behavior. That makes it hard to interpret what it means to commit a crime based on someone’s homelessness, i.e., a hate crime. If you get into a fight with a homeless person who is squatting on or near your property, over their squatting, is that based on their homeless status (because it presumably would not have occurred unless they were homeless), and thus a hate crime, or is it based on their behavior (the squatting, which is arguably linked to their homeless status)? (Note that many so-called hate-crimes laws, like the federal hate crimes law, do not, contrary to their name, require proof of hatred, only that the defendant have acted because of, or partly because of, the victim’s protected status or characteristic. As law professor and U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Gail Heriot notes, if a burglar kills a male homeowner to avoid detection, but then lets a female homeowner live because he finds “himself unable to shoot a woman,” he has literally violated the federal hate crimes law, since his actions were based partly on gender.)
(My former apartment-mate in Los Angeles, a bleeding-heart liberal, got into a fight with a homeless man over his squatting on the parking lot of the apartments we lived in; it culminated in the homeless man slashing his tires. It will probably never be clear to what extent my apartment-mate’s animus was exacerbated by the man’s bad smell and other characteristics arguably associated with his homeless status, such as his excreting on the pavement. My apartment-mate was not pleased to have the homeless man there on premises while he was seeking to rent out the apartment, viewing it as an impediment to finding a tenant. If prosecutors wanted to, they could easily find an “expert witness” to testify that my apartment-mate harbored an animus towards the homeless. It is not hard to find so-called “expert witnesses” to testify to real or imaginary biases in California, as any lawyer who practices employment discrimination law there could no doubt attest. A plaintiff’s lawyer can easily find a psychologist or diversity consultant to testify as an “expert witness” (for a fee) that the plaintiff has suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of workplace jokes (even though that is impossible, according to findings by psychologists like Paul Lees-Haley), or that the plaintiff is a victim of discrimination (even if the plaintiff and the accused supervisor belong to the same gender or race).)
These state hate crimes laws are unwise, but at least they do not raise the serious civil liberties problems associated with the recently-expanded federal hate crimes law. The federal hate crimes law is designed to circumvent constitutional double-jeopardy safeguards (by allowing people found innocent in state court to be reprosecuted all over again in federal court). It also raises serious federalism issues, since it may exceed Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause.