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SALT LAKE CITY — Gathered on a panel to discuss hate crimes in Utah, a dozen law enforcement and activist representatives agreed they are stifled by the very laws that should enable them to fight crimes fueled by bias.
Railing against Utah's current hate crime statute as a "toothless tiger," Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill drew some of the loudest applause from the more than 50 people gathered for the panel hosted by the Utah MLK Human Rights Commission and NAACP.
Gill recalled sitting on a panel 15 years ago for an identical discussion about fighting hate crimes, and insisted he does not want to find himself having the same conversation 15 years in the future.
"In the state of Utah, I do not have a workable statute, and it's about time that we did," he told the crowd.
Gill filed charges last month against two men accused of assaulting two gay men in 2014, allegedly attacking them after hurling slurs at them. Police say Eric Levi Johnson, 26, and Chad Ryan Doak, 25, both of Wyoming, confronted the two friends on Dec. 21, 2014, a few blocks away from Club JAM, a gay bar at 751 N. 300 West.
Rusty Andrade suffered trauma to his head, a neck strain, a bruised rib and had several teeth knocked loose in the assault, charging documents state, while Maxwell Christen was left bruised and sore.
However, Johnson and Doak face only misdemeanor charges in the case — one class A misdemeanor and one class B misdemeanor each — as Gill said Utah's insufficient laws left him unable to elevate the case to a hate crime. Arrest warrants were issued last month for Johnson and Doak. No hearings have been scheduled in the case.
Now married, Rusty and Maxwell Andrade shared their experience before the Utah Legislature earlier this year in a push for a proposed hate crime law, which ultimately failed. The Senate voted 17-11 against SB107, reversing a preliminary vote in which several senators signaled tentative support.
SB107 would have included sexual orientation, sexual identity and other categories of people in Utah's existing hate crimes law. It also proposed more clearly defining a hate crime as an offense against a person or person's property based on a belief or perception about their ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.
The law also would have given prosecutors the ability to bump up the level of a crime one step for both misdemeanors and felonies. Had the law passed, Gill would have had a choice to elevate Doak and Johnson's charges to one third-degree felony and one class A misdemeanor apiece.
Members of the audience muttered and shook their heads as Gill described the "facade" the current law creates.
"You can have violent felonies, but I cannot classify those as a hate crime," Gill said. "As a result, most prosecutors do not use (the statute) because they know the hurdles you have to jump through do not provide that measure of justice or the means to pursue it in the state of Utah."
Lamenting the failure of SB107, panelists shared their hope that a bill already being crafted by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, will have more success next spring.
... most prosecutors do not use (Utah's current statute) because they know the hurdles you have to jump through do not provide that measure of justice or the means to pursue it in the state of Utah.
–Sim Gill, Salt Lake County district attorney
Thatcher, who came as a spectator to the panel but ended up answering questions, praised the push behind last year's hate crimes bill, which he says could have been passed if the Legislature hadn't run out of time. To prevent the same thing from happening, Thatcher intends to start disseminating the text of his new bill as early as next month.
Thatcher promised that the bill will create an avenue to prosecute hate crimes, while still protecting constitutional rights of free speech, thought and belief.
Other audience members voiced the concern raised by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, when his hate crimes bill failed, saying it was doomed by a statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The LDS Church had voiced concern about legislation, including the hate crime bill, that could upset the balance lawmakers reached in 2015 to protect both religious liberty and LGBT rights.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the Utah chapter of the NAACP, said she has been in contact with representatives from the LDS Church since the bill failed and voiced her hope that the church will be more supportive in the next go-around.
Williams also emphasized the importance of community education, both to break down barriers between all kinds of people and to ensure the public knows how to identify and report hate crimes.
Speaking about obstacles hate crime laws face in Utah, Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams emphasized that the statute is not specific to the LGBT community.
"The perception from a lot of lawmakers was, 'This is a gay bill,'" Williams said. "There are these mental barriers that a lot of legislators have. They see this as an LGBT-led effort, and it's not."
What the state needs, he said, is a law that protects all kinds of people.
Gill praised federal law enforcement — including fellow panelists John Huber, U.S. attorney for Utah, and Eric Barnhart, special agent in charge of the FBI's Salt Lake City office — for picking up the slack and prosecuting hate crimes in the absence of a workable statute in Utah.
Barnhart said the FBI will be as creative as possible to prosecute a hate crime case. He recalled a hate crime where the victim had been hit by a piece of playground equipment, and in order to establish federal jurisdiction, investigators proved the equipment had been purchased from a business in another state.
"It is a hard bar (to meet) oftentimes, but we will play into the four corners of every statute on the books," Barnhart said.
According to Equality Utah, 1,279 hates crimes were identified in Utah over the past 20 years, but none were prosecuted as such. Forty-eight percent of those cases were racially motivated, while 20 percent were motivated by religion, 17 percent by ethnicity and 15 percent by sexual orientation.
Provo Police Chief John King echoed Gill's concerns, saying his officers are "handcuffed," knowing the pitfalls that await when they investigate an incident as a hate crime. Provo has seen only two hate crimes in as many years, he said, neither of which were prosecuted under the statute.
Salt Lake Deputy Police Chief Tim Doubt noted that Utah's urban center sees more incidents tied to hate crimes. In the past year and a half, the department as investigated 33 hate crimes, Doubt said. Thirty-six percent of those crimes were based on race, 27 percent on religion and 26 percent on sexual orientation.