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 itan epiphanyand 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.