Thursday, June 24, 2010


Abuse of “hate crime” prosecutions

The New York Times, yesterday, told of a disturbing trend — a trend of abuse of hate crime laws by prosecutors. The situation amounts to being an unintended, but probably predictable, consequence of misguided legislation (I’ve given my opinion of the whole hate crime concept here, here, and here).

But in Queens since 2005, at least five people have been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, committing a very different kind of hate crime — singling out elderly victims for nonviolent crimes like mortgage fraud because they believed older people would be easy to deceive and might have substantial savings or home equity.

And this month, Queens prosecutors charged two women with stealing more than $31,000 from three elderly men they had befriended separately. The women, Gina L. Miller, 39, and Sylvia Johns, 23, of Flushing, were charged with grand larceny as a hate crime.

These are clearly not hate crimes by anyone’s understanding of the term, and the situations don’t even remotely dovetail with what was intended when the laws were passed. But, with the complicity of some judges, prosecutors in Queens have figured out how to use them to their advantage.

The prosecutors’ reasons for twisting the law this way is that the system is, as they see it, too lenient on hucksters. The prosecutors would like stiffer sentences for people who bilk people — particularly old people — out of their savings. The problem, of course, is that the prosecutors don’t get to decide that, and if the laws are, indeed, too lenient, then it’s the legislators who have to fix the problem.

But the prosecutors have figured out a work-around, by getting the thieves prosecuted as hate-criminals.

And they’re not abashed about it. Quite the contrary, they’re proud of their novel approach. And can one blame them? Who doesn’t support stricter punishment of these nasties?

Led by Ms. Kane, who runs a specialized elder fraud unit, the efforts have made the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, a leader in finding new uses for hate crime laws, prosecutors in other jurisdictions say. Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys’ Association, said he had not heard of another office using hate crimes as Queens does.

Neither had Kathleen B. Hogan, president of the State District Attorneys Association. But she looked into the efforts after hearing about it from a reporter, called it an epiphany and said she would suggest it to the group’s committee on best practices. Some New York prosecutors, who asked not to be named because they did not intend to criticize colleagues, said that while the approach intrigued them, they were waiting to see if convictions were overturned on appeal before considering it.

Ms Kane adds, We don’t have a whole lot of tools. We should utilize what the legislature has given us. Basically a direct admission that this is at least something of a stretch.

I see it as more than a stretch: it’s evidence that these sorts of laws are wrong-headed. Except in cases of fairly minor infractions, where it might actually be useful to take them more seriously when there’s a hate motive behind them, we should be concerned with the crime. Nasty crimes deserve vigorous prosecution and severe penalties on their own merits. Cheating people out of their life’s savings, beating people to death, setting fire to buildings, and so on... these are things that don’t need nor benefit from having hate crime attached to them.

Abuse of these laws, though, threatens the system. And the abuse is more likely to spread than to stop.

1 comment:

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

This is a really tough issue. I think that the concept of "hate crime" is a useful and important one, but it's been very badly defined and applied, as this example shows.

To my mind, the question shouldn't be whether the crime was based on prejudice or ideology, but rather whether or not it was done with the intention or demonstrable effect of spreading or promoting that ideology.

By this standard, targeting the elderly for fraud isn't by itself a hate crime, but then spray painting their houses with "Another Gullible Geezer Suckered!" would make it one.

And, flipping back to your earlier posts, committing heinous violence against a black woman isn't necessarily a hate crime, probably even if she's chosen because of her race. But it becomes a hate crime when the violence is accompanied by racial epithets that the victim is sure to recount afterwards, spreading fear and intimidation in her community, or when it is followed or preceded by boasts about "n--- raping" on a white supremacist bulletin board.

I do think it's reasonable to try to single out hate crimes for additional approbation and punishment, but I agree that it's a disservice to that agenda when you stretch the definition to the extent that an impartial party might hear all the details of the crime and never even imagine that it was motivated by prejudice.