In: Criminal Defense

How Does Texas Define a Hate Crime?

In the United States, we pride ourselves on being a union that honors all individuals. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it over 150 years ago in the Gettysburg Address, and we like to think that it is one of our most deeply-held national principles. But as we have seen over the past 150 years, the reality doesn’t always match the theory.

Consider that in 2020, there were 838 active hate groups in the United States, these hate groups being defined as groups with “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people.” Over the past few years, hate crimes have risen throughout the country. But what is considered a hate crime in Texas? And how are these dealt with in a court of law?

James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act

The term “hate crime” differs depending on the jurisdiction or state where you reside. In the state of Texas, it can be considered a hate crime if someone commits an intentional crime against another party because of a prejudice or bias against their race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual preference, age, or national origin or because of their status as a peace officer or judge.

Here in Texas, we have state legislation called the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act named after the Texas black man who was horrifically dragged to his death by three white men before being dumped in front of an African-American church in 1998. Signed into law May 12, 2001, it allows the prosecution to add stiffer penalties to crimes that are proven to be hate crimes.

In addition to Texas legislation, we also have federal legislation under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act. While state legislation does not currently recognize those crimes committed against an individual because of the victim’s gender expression or identity, the federal version of the law does.

Not Many Hate Crime Convictions in Texas

While having hate crimes legislation is critical at this moment in history, it is interesting to note that there are not many actual hate crime convictions on the books in Texas. This may be because, in order for someone to be convicted of a hate crime in Texas, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the intention of the crime was hate-motivated. While the prosecution of most crimes only requires proof that the defendant committed the crime, a hate crime requires proof of the defendant’s intention, which can be difficult.

The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act has additional limitations. The enhancements allowed are only a single level to the original crime. It also excludes more serious crimes because they already carry lengthy prison terms. Consequently, there is consensus that there are so few hate crime convictions in Texas because it is not only extremely difficult for prosecutors to prove the defendant’s intent, but there is little motivation to seek the hate crime designation.

Understanding the Implications and Nuances of a Hate Crime Charge

When you have been charged with a crime in Texas that may be prosecuted through a hate crime lens, it’s important to understand that any penalties that you receive will automatically be upgraded to the next level. Although political biases are not typically considered under the hate crimes definition in Texas, if the crime you committed looks as if it was committed because of a bias against a particular group of people, this may be considered. It is also possible that the court will judge you more harshly because of it.

Just because the Byrd Hate Crimes Act has been infrequently used so far in criminal convictions, there is a push for prosecutors to send strong signals to the community that hate crimes will not be tolerated in Texas. If you have been charged with a hate crime in Texas, you need a strong legal defense advocate in your corner. Contact the Law Office of Brent C. Bowen, PLLC to schedule a consultation to discuss your charges and your options.