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Public Statements

Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act Of 2007

Floor Speech

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Location: Washington, DC


LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT HATE CRIMES PREVENTION ACT OF 2007 -- (House of Representatives - May 03, 2007)

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Mr. SMITH of Texas. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Mr. Speaker, I oppose this bill, H.R. 1592, for three reasons. First, the bill will result in disproportionate justice for crime victims who do not fall within the categories it contains. Second, it will have a chilling effect on religious freedom and first amendment rights. And third, it is probably unconstitutional and raises significant Federalism issues.

We can all agree that every violent crime is deplorable, regardless of its motivation. Every violent crime can be devastating not only to the victim, but also to the larger community whose public safety has been violated. That is why all violent crimes must be vigorously prosecuted. However, this bill, no matter how well intended, undermines basic principles of our criminal justice system.

Our criminal justice system has been built on the ideal of equal justice for all. Under this bill, justice will no longer be equal, but depend on the race, sex, sexual orientation, disability or status of the victim. It will allow different penalties to be imposed for the same crime. For example, criminals who kill a homosexual or transsexual will be punished more harshly than criminals who kill a police officer, a member of the military, a child, a senior citizen or any other person.

To me, all victims should have equal worth in the eyes of the law. In fact, in 1984, Congress, in a bipartisan manner, enacted the Sentencing Reform Act to ensure the consistent application of criminal penalties to avoid, ``unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants who have been found guilty of similar criminal conduct.''

Why are we departing from the fairness embodied in that Act? Ordinarily, criminal law does not concern itself with motive, but rather with intent.

This legislation forces law enforcement officials to comb the offender's past to determine whether the offender ever expressed hostility toward a protected group. In addition, the bill raises the real possibility that religious leaders or members of religious groups could become the subject of a criminal investigation focusing on a suspect's religious beliefs, membership and religious organizations and any past statements made by a suspect. A chilling effect on religious leaders and others who, press their constitutionally protected beliefs, unfortunately, could result.

Some of my colleagues on the other side will claim that an amendment adopted during committee markup protects religious speech. However, it would not diminish the chilling effect of possible involvement in criminal investigations. Religious speakers and groups will feel in greater jeopardy as a result of this bill.

The facts of the Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin v. Mitchell underscore the danger of this legislation. In that case, Todd Mitchell received an enhanced hate crime sentence because of remarks he made to prior to others attacking a teenager because of his race. Mitchell did not participate in the physical assault of the teenager. His sentence was upheld. He was punished for his words.

My colleagues on the other side have argued that no prosecutor would ever subject members of a religious community to the criminal process. Are we willing to take the risk and leave the first amendment protections to a prosecutor's discretion?

I also believe the bill itself is probably unconstitutional and will likely be struck down by the courts. There is little evidence to support the claim that hate crimes impact interstate or foreign commerce, an important consideration for any Federal court reviewing the constitutionality of this legislation.

In 2000, the Supreme Court in the United States v. Morrison struck down a prohibition on gender-motivated violence. In that case, the court specifically warned Congress that the commerce clause does not apply to noneconomic violent criminal conduct that does not cross State lines, nor does the proposed legislation authorized under the 14th and 15th amendments. Those amendments only extend to State action and do not cover the actions of private persons who commit violent crimes.

While the 13th amendment reaches private conduct such as individual criminal conduct, it is difficult to argue that one's sexual orientation, disability or gender identity constitutes a badge and incidence of slavery. Aside from the constitutional defects of this bill, it purports to federalize crimes that are being effectively prosecuted by our States and local governments.

FBI statistics show that the incidence of so-called hate crimes has actually declined over the last 10 years. Only six of approximately 15,000 homicides in the Nation involved hate crimes.

As the Washington Post stated in a previous editorial, ``Rape, murder and assault--no matter what prejudice motivates the perpetrator--are presumptively local matters in which the Federal Government should intervene only when it has a pressing interest. The fact that hatred lurks behind a violent incident is not, in our view, an adequate Federal interest .....''

Unfortunately we cannot legislate away the hatred that some feel in their hearts. We need fewer labels and more unity in our country. For all the reasons I have mentioned above, I oppose the bill.

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Mr. SMITH of Texas. Mr. Speaker, this motion to recommit is straightforward. It seeks to protect America's senior citizens and those who serve in our Armed Forces.

My colleagues on the other side contend that a new law is needed to cover crimes against persons based on race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. The motion to recommit makes sure that seniors and our military personnel are added to the list of protected groups.

We all care greatly about the safety and security of our senior citizens. We all understand that they are particularly vulnerable to crime. Criminals who prey on our senior citizens because they are senior citizens should be vigorously prosecuted and punished.

The statistics paint a disturbing picture of violence against senior citizens in our country. A recent Justice Department study found that each year over the last 10 years, for every 1,000 persons over 65, four are violently assaulted. This includes rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assaults. Approximately 65 percent of these crimes against senior citizens are committed by strangers or casual acquaintances. In my hometown, the San Antonio police report rising crime against the elderly, with over 6,200 crimes just this last year.

We were all horrified by the recent videotaped robbery in New York City committed against 101-year-old Rose Morat. Rose was leaving her building to go to church when a robber, who pretended to help her through the vestibule, turned and delivered three hard punches to her face and grabbed her purse. He pushed her and her walker to the ground. Rose suffered a broken cheekbone and was hospitalized. The robber got away with $33 and her house keys. Police believe the same man robbed an 85-year-old woman shortly after beating Rose.

These are horrible crimes that strike fear into the hearts of America's senior citizens and make them wonder whether they will be victimized next.

This motion to recommit also adds the category of current or former members of the Armed Forces to the list of groups in this bill. We honor our men and women of the military because of their patriotism, their commitment to protecting our freedom and their service to our country. In times of controversy surrounding the use of our military, we have seen unfortunate acts by those who use their hostility towards the military to further their political agenda.

With the rising debate over the Iraq war, we are seeing increasing threats to Iraqi war veterans. Recently, a Syracuse woman pleaded guilty to spitting in the face of a Fort Drum soldier at an airport.

Mr. Speaker, Congress needs to make it clear to everyone that we honor our veterans and current members of our Armed Forces. Congress can make the message clear that hate of our Armed Forces will be punished at a heightened level, just like the other groups under this act.

If Congress rejects this motion to recommit, who will explain to the thousands of victims who are senior citizens or military victims that their injuries are less important than those of others protected under the hate crimes law? Are we really prepared to tell seniors and our men and women in uniform across our country that crimes committed against victims because of race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability are, as a rule, more worthy of punishment than those committed against seniors and military personnel?

Mr. Speaker, I urge Members to support this motion to recommit.

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