[Moab Sun News file photo]

The Moab City Council is taking a stand in support of state legislation that would strengthen the penalties against criminals who intentionally target their victims based on a person’s identity or background.

Council members unanimously approved a resolution this month that calls on the Utah Legislature to give law enforcement officials stronger tools to crack down on victim-targeted crimes. In particular, the resolution hones in on offenders who target their victims on the basis of ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, nationality, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Moab City Council member Rani Derasary brought the resolution to the council for its consideration after reading about related trends in Utah.

“We, as a state, have hate-crime legislation on the books, but for years, we’ve been hearing that it’s literally unenforceable,” Derasary said during the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

State lawmakers adopted Utah’s first hate-crime law in 1992, but in the quarter-century since that time, not one person has ever been convicted of a hate crime, according to the nonprofit group Equality Utah.

State Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, thinks the time has come to change that law – and in order for his proposed amendments to succeed, he wishes that advocates and journalists would stop using the term “hate-crime law” altogether.

“If I could get people to stop calling it a ‘hate crime,’ I’d be halfway to getting this passed,” Thatcher told the Moab Sun News.

You can’t prove hate in a court of law, he said. But Utah lawmakers can follow the lead of their counterparts in Wisconsin, he said: In 1992, that state crafted a law that allowed authorities to consider whether a crime was committed or initially considered due to an intended victim’s status in a protected class. The U.S Supreme Court later upheld that law, ruling that enhanced penalties for racially motivated crimes do not violate a criminal defendant’s First Amendment rights.

To be clear, Thatcher said he is not proposing to create a new classification of crime.

“What we are proposing is an enhanced penalty – an enhanced sentence,” he said. “We enhance penalties for all manners of things, so doesn’t it make sense that we enhance penalties for targeting an entire community?”

As it is, the law that’s on the books excludes criteria that would lead to the prosecution of crimes committed against someone due to that person’s race, sexual orientation and gender identity, among other factors.

For example, Thatcher said, it does not differentiate between a person who spray-paints threatening anti-Muslim screeds on private property, and someone else who spray-paints “have a nice day.”

“Under current Utah law, those are the exact same crime, and I find that unacceptable,” Thatcher said.

The undercurrent of the state’s existing law, he said, is that a judge cannot consider whether an act was committed to intimidate a victim.

“I think that’s a failure on our part,” he said. “We have an obligation to fix it.”

“All I’m asking is that a judge be allowed to consider whether an offender intentionally or deliberately targeted the victim based on the color of their skin (for example),” he said. “I think that’s pretty straightforward.”

Derasary noted that former State Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, first tried to expand Utah’s hate-crime legislation so that it wouldn’t be what numerous prosecutors have called “gutless,” she said.

When Urquhart left the Utah Legislature, Thatcher took on the issue of victim targeting. But during the last legislative session, Derasary said, he was unable to even get a hearing for his legislation, Senate Bill 72.

“He was told that there just wasn’t an interest in the state to support it,” Derasary said.

As the 2018 legislative session approaches, Thatcher is once again pushing ahead with another version of the bill, and he’s relying on municipalities around Utah to help him make his case to his fellow lawmakers.

“He thinks that cities can help settle that argument,” Derasary said.

So far, a number of communities across the state have passed similar resolutions, starting with West Jordan, and continuing with South Salt Lake City and Beaver County.

‘I’m very encouraged,” Thatcher told the Moab Sun News.

Thatcher said that legislators focus on particular issues – his own area of expertise is criminal justice – yet he said that many of them don’t necessarily think about the issue of victim targeting. But he’s hopeful that they’ll pay attention as momentum builds for similar resolutions of support.

“When they start hearing from their city councils, their county commissions and their constituents, then they have to care,” he said.

For now, however, Thatcher said that he and other advocates of tougher revisions to the existing law are facing pushback from many people who think the proposal would be used to affect people’s free speech rights.

“Until we can address those concerns, we’re going to have a hard time getting this through,” he said.

That pushback arose during the 2017 legislative session in spite of the fact that the Utah Statewide Association of Prosecutors, the Utah Chiefs of Police Association and the Utah Sheriffs Association rallied behind SB 72.

“This bill, because of the stigma that is attached to hate crimes, is the only time we’ve had law enforcement unified around an issue and had the state legislature reject it,” Thatcher said. “It’s the only time I’ve seen politics win out on a criminal justice issue involving policy.”

According to Equality Utah, law enforcement agencies in the state reported 1,279 hate crimes in the past two decades. Almost half of those reported incidents were committed against a person because of his or her race. Another 20 percent were committed against someone because of their religion, while 17 percent of these crimes were tied to a person’s ethnicity, and 15 percent were tied to a victim’s sexual orientation.

For Derasary, the issue of victim targeting is timely and important, given recent reports of bullying at local schools.

“I personally feel very strongly about this, especially because of some of the issues our youth are dealing with,” Derasary said “… I think it’s important for us as leaders to stand up and say, ‘We see and appreciate everyone in the community; we’re trying to listen to you; we can’t always do everything perfectly, but we value you, and you guys are the ones that make living here so great.’”

Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann told the Moab Sun News that she would like to follow the city’s lead by bringing the resolution to the county board – perhaps as early as next month.

McGann said she is motivated largely by the January 2017 death of Grand County Middle School student Lily McClish, who died by suicide after some of her peers reportedly bullied her.

“I would be happy to champion it, because what I saw through what happened to a young girl at our middle school this year was horrendous,” she said.

Grand County Council chair Jaylyn Hawks said she isn’t familiar with Thatcher’s efforts, but if the resolution comes before the council, she would likely join McGann in backing the proposal.

“On the surface, it sounds like a good idea,” Hawks said. “Without having looked at it closely, I would say that I could support it.”

State lawmaker plans to revisit issue of victim targeting in 2018

All I’m asking is that a judge be allowed to consider whether an offender intentionally or deliberately targeted the victim based on the color of their skin (for example) … I think that’s pretty straightforward.