People get into fights. It happens every day. Most of the time those involved walk away from it and that’s the end. Sometimes one or both parties are charged with assault (misdemeanor or felony) or aggravated assault.
Much less often, but much more serious, an assault charge can be accompanied by a charge of committing a hate crime. How does an assault become a hate crime? And what does that mean in terms of prosecution and punishment?
Texas Assault Law
The Texas Penal Code defines the crime of assault as:
- Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury to another, including the person’s spouse,
- Intentionally or knowingly threatening another with imminent bodily injury, including the person’s spouse, or
- Intentionally or knowingly causing physical contact with another when the person knows or should reasonably believe that the other will regard that contact as offensive or provocative.
A charge of aggravated assault may be brought if serious injuries resulted from an assault or if a weapon was used. (Many things can be defined as a weapon.)
Texas Hate Crime Law
The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act defines a hate crime as any crime motivated by “prejudice, hatred or advocacy of violence.” Hate crime charges can be added to criminal charges of arson, criminal mischief, graffiti, or (more often) crimes against a person.
Hate crime charges may be brought if the crime was committed against the victim because of their:
- Race, color, national origin
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- Work as a judge or law enforcement officer
In high-profile cases, the FBI may investigate and federal criminal charges may be filed.
Prosecuting a Crime as a Hate Crime
In order to be convicted of a hate crime, the prosecutor must convince a jury that the underlying crime occurred, and that it was motivated by prejudice or hate.
“Hate speech” is not a crime, but statements of hate can be used as evidence of the motivation of the accused person. Often the prosecutor will present something the accused said to the victim. That speech was used as evidence in the 2019 case of a Dallas man who shot a transgender woman while shouting slurs at her. He was convicted of a hate crime.
But a homophobic slur spoken before an assault on two gay men in Austin was not enough to support a hate crime charge. In that case, a plea deal resulted in misdemeanor assault charges.
What else might prosecutors use as evidence of motive for a hate crime?
- Things the accused has written on social media, online, as graffiti, or tattoos they are wearing
- The location of the incident (for example, a synagogue or mosque for a religiously motivated crime, or in the case of an Atlanta killer, at Asian-owned nail salons)
- Possession of literature or membership in a group that espouses hatred toward a certain group of people
Punishment for Hate Crimes
A conviction for a hate crime enhances the punishment applied to the original offense. It “bumps it up” one level. So, if a person was found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor, they would face punishments for a Class B misdemeanor. A Class A misdemeanor will not be sentenced as a felony but the amount of jail time could be increased to 180 days.
The same applies to felony charges. The punishment is increased, except for a conviction of a 1st degree felony, which already has the potential for life in prison.
If you could be facing criminal charges for a Texas hate crime, call the Fort Worth criminal defense lawyers at Lee and Wood. We have extensive experience defending people against misdemeanor and felony assault charges. Call our law office at 817-678-6771 or contact us online.