Understanding Hate Crime Statutes and Building Towards a Better System in Texas

By Ben Gillis*

Volume 40.2

* The University of Texas School of Law, J.D. expected 2013; B.A., Brigham Young University, 2009.  The author would like to thank Professor Michele Deitch, of the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, for her help and support with this Note.

Introduction

On April 22, 2012, three women were assaulted outside a bar in Williamson County, Texas.[1]  Julie Ward, one of the victims, said that she and her companions had been targeted because they were gay.[2]

Ward claimed that she, her sister, and her sister’s partner were first asked to leave the bar because of their sexual orientation.[3]  She said that next, patrons of the bar followed them outside, restrained them, and assaulted them.[4]  The bar manager’s wife, meanwhile, told a different story: that the women were roughhousing; that they were not asked to leave the bar because of their sexual orientation; and that they were not assaulted at all.[5]  When asked whether the incident would be considered a hate crime, a representative from Williamson County Sheriff’s Office said only that an investigation was ongoing and that “if ‘it is warranted that charges be filed for a hate crime, charges will be filed.’”[6]

Incidents such as this fuel an ongoing nationwide debate about the proper scope and function of hate crime laws.  How will law enforcement investigate such offenses?  Under Texas’s current bias crime statute, will a prosecutor be willing or even able to charge perpetrators with a hate crime?  While it is undisputed that bias-motivated crime should not be tolerated, there is little consensus as to whether current laws actually prevent hate crimes from occurring.[7]  Are our current laws effective?  One obvious goal of such statutes is to reduce crime, but aside from that objective, are current laws serving the community through public awareness and education?

Nowhere are these questions more appropriate than in Texas.  Despite the fact that Texas has had a hate crimes statute on the books since 1993, prosecutors seem extremely reluctant to charge defendants with hate crime offenses.  Indeed, data indicates that Texas prosecutors have only used the hate crime law eighteen times since 2001.[8]  If prosecutors are not utilizing hate crime laws, the public will not become educated about this important issue, and perpetrators will not be held accountable for their actions to the fullest extent provided by statute.  Of course, while higher rates of prosecution do not necessarily mean that a hate crime statute is effective at stopping crime, prosecution is at least evidence that the statute is being used.  What can be done to make Texas’s hate crime statute more accessible to prosecutors and, ultimately, more effective at curtailing crime?

This Note will first explore the history, types, and scope of hate crime statutes throughout the United States.  It will then analyze hate crime statistics in a number of particular states, in order to determine which are utilizing their hate crime statutes, and whether the construction of those states’ statutes has any effect on hate crime rates.  Finally, it will outline suggestions about how Texas’s hate crimes statute and reporting programs can be improved.


[1].Claire Osborn, Sheriff’s Office Investigating Report of Assault on Gay Women Outside Weir Bar, Austin American-Statesman, Apr. 24, 2012, http://www.statesman.com/news/williamson/
sheriffs-office-investigating-report-of-assault-on-gay-2323580.html.

[2].Id.

[3].WATCH: Lesbian Says She Was Kicked Out of Williamson County Bar, Beaten by Patrons, Dall. Voice, April 24, 2012, http://www.dallasvoice.com/lesbian-beaten-bar-north-austin-10107483.html.

[4].Id.

[5].Id.

[6].Id.

[7].See generally Susan Gellman & Frank Lawrence, Agreeing to Agree: A Proponent and Opponent of Hate Crime Laws Reach for Common Ground, 41 Harv. J. on Legis. 421 (2004) (discussing the arguments for and against bias-crime laws and proposing a model bias-crime statute to balance the competing concerns of proponents and opponents of such laws).

[8].Cases in Which a Hate Crime Finding was Requested, Tex. Judicial Council (Dec. 11, 2012), http://www.txcourts.gov/oca/hate_crimes.pdf.