Proposal To Strengthen Hate-Crimes Law Passes Key Step

Feb 21, 2019, 12:07 PM
FILE: Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher, R-West Valley City, gives a thumbs up at the State Captiol in Salt L...
FILE: Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher, R-West Valley City, gives a thumbs up at the State Captiol in Salt Lake City for a special session on July 18, 2018. (Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)
(Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A proposal to strengthen Utah’s hate-crimes law was approved by a panel of lawmakers on Thursday, a key first step forward for the idea long stuck in legislative gridlock.

The unanimous vote came after a groundswell of support that picked up speed after the November beating of a Latino man in Salt Lake City who authorities have said was targeted by an attacker who said he wanted to “kill Mexicans.”

Supporters said the legislation protects civil rights and sends an important message that crimes targeting a particular group of people won’t be tolerated. Opponents worry the measure goes too far in singling out certain groups for protections.

The new legislation would allow longer jail sentences for people convicted of targeting someone because of their sexual orientation, race, religion or other factors.

The legislation now goes to the full Senate, where Republican sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher said it will face a tighter vote.

Utah’s current hate-crime law doesn’t protect specific groups and prosecutors have said it’s essentially unusable.

It could not be be used to charge Alan Dale Covington, 50, with a hate crime in state court even though he told police he attacked a father and son with a 3-foot (91-centimeter) metal pole because they were from Mexico, according to court documents.

He told investigators the “Mexican Mafia” had been after him for years and that he went to Lopez Tires on Nov. 27 because “they all know each other,” police said.

Luis Lopez, 18, suffered serious head wounds after he tried to defend his father Jose, who was hit in the shoulder as he ran away.

Covington was charged Wednesday with a hate crime in federal court. His attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.

News of the beating rippled through the state and intensified calls for a stronger state hate-crimes law.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill was among the critics, saying the current law wouldn’t let him give “a measure of justice that this conduct calls out for.” Gill, who is of Indian descent, said people screamed obscenities at him after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, making him fear not only for himself but for his family and other people who look like him.

“That fear is genuine,” he said.

Opponents of the measure argued the list of protected classes is too long.

“I am sympathetic with the intent. I have deep concerns with the structure,” said Connor Boyack with the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute group.

The vote came days after a video showing a man in Salt Lake City allegedly punching a stranger because he was gay gained widespread attention online. Lawmakers have said the timing was coincidental.

The bill stalled out in 2016, and supporters said its prospects were hurt when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged lawmakers, many of whom are church members, not to upset a balance between religious and LGBT rights.

Church officials clarified this year that they do not oppose the legislation.

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Proposal To Strengthen Hate-Crimes Law Passes Key Step