Michigan’s hate crime law would expand to include intimidation of gays and lesbians and people with disabilities, and would make hanging a noose or burning a cross specific property crimes, under changes urged by civil rights groups, legislators and law enforcement officials Wednesday.
Those changes will be on a fast track in the House beginning in August, said Rep. Paul Condino, D-Southfield, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He said Wednesday that he would introduce a bill to strengthen the state’s ethnic intimidation law.
Condino said the Democrats, who hold the majority in the House, are solidly behind the plan along with a number of Republicans.
Law enforcement officials supporting the revisions said they will make it easier to prosecute people for committing crimes that are motivated by the hatred of groups.
The proposal could face resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate, where conservatives have long opposed giving specific legal protections to sexual orientation.
Sen. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, said the revisions will add teeth to the hate crime law.
“When you attack someone who is gay or who is disabled, it’s an attack on all gay and disabled people,” Clarke said.
Linda Parker, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said the changes will address a growing number of hate crimes in Michigan. She said civil rights advocates and police are frustrated because they cannot effectively prosecute people for hanging nooses on properties with the intent of frightening others, or charge attackers with intimidating people based on their sexual orientation.
The civil rights department cited several instances this year of nooses displayed in workplaces to frighten or intimidate people.
Parker said Michigan ranked third among states in the number of reported hate crimes, with 739 in 2006, according to FBI data.
Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackey said the changes would make it easier to convict those who harass or intimidate others because of appearance. He said defendants could no longer claim they mistook a victim for another race, gender or religion.
The motive itself would be a crime, regardless of whether the victim was part of a protected class of people under the hate crime law.
Mackey said the law does not infringe on free speech, adding, “You can say you hate whoever you want, you just can’t commit a crime against a person or their property.”
It also would be a bias-motivated crime to intimidate someone merely for associating with others from a protected group. For instance, someone who harasses or threatens a white person for associating with African Americans could be charged with a bias-motivated crime.