By Jeff Amy
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's lieutenant governor proposed his own version of a hate crimes law on June 17, calling on lawmakers to protect broad categories from bias crimes, including people victimized because of their culture and exercising First Amendment rights including worship, free speech and assembly.
Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan made the proposal after days of pressure by House lawmakers, business leaders and community activists to move on giving Georgia a state hate crimes law again. A previous effort was found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court more than a decade ago, leaving Georgia as one of only four states without a hate crimes law.
“This is the right time and the right place in history for Georgia to lead on this,” Duncan said.
Advocates have long been seeking to renew Georgia's law penalizing hate crimes. That push intensified after the February slaying of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick. Investigators have said that one of the white men charged in the case uttered a racial slur after chasing Arbery down and shooting him.
Georgia's House passed a simpler and more conventional measure last year. House Bill 426 would add penalties to crimes committed because of someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability. A person found guilty of a hate crime would be sentenced to an extra three to 12 months for misdemeanor and an extra two years or more for a felony.
That bill has been stalled in a Senate committee for more than a year, blocked by a chairman who opposed the concept. Duncan himself has been lukewarm in the past.
“Obviously a lot has changed since that original House bill was drafted, and unfortunately more horrifying examples of hate crimes has continued to haunt our state and our communities,” Duncan said. “There is no way to ignore the sense of urgency.”
While the House bill calls for adding additional penalties to some other criminal charge for bias-motivated acts, Duncan's plan would instead create a separate crime of bias motivated intimidation, as some other states have done. So someone could be charged with assault, and bias-motivated intimidation as separate crimes, for example.
The plan would protect all the categories included in the House bill, as well as expand protection to include age, ancestry, creed, culture, ethnicity, homelessness, sex, armed forces veteran status, having been involved in civil rights activities or having exercised the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment including free speech, free press, assembly or petition of government.
While many states include some of those crimes, Wake Forest University law professor Kami Chavis said Duncan's proposal is “very broad.” She said she fears the issues of race, religion and sexual orientation that she sees as the top reasons for hate crimes protection get lost amid long lists of protected classes.
“It's hard,” said Chavis. “You're in a line-drawing game.”
Bias-motivated intimidation would apply when a person is slain or seriously physically injured or their property is damaged because they are a member of a protected category. It would be punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. Any sentence would be added atop a conviction for related crimes, and could not be served at the same time.
Anyone victimized would be able to bring a civil lawsuit for actual damages under Duncan's plan. When someone reports a hate crime, it would have to be reported to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation whether someone is charged or convicted or not.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman James Beverly, speaking alongside several other African American lawmakers immediately after Duncan, called the lieutenant governor's advocacy of the issue an “insult” and “disingenuous." Beverly said Duncan told a leading African American lawmaker last summer he was not interested in pushing the measure.
Those lawmakers said they feared Duncan's attempt to push a new plan would ruin the chance to get any bill through, saying they prefer the measure passed by the House, in part because there may not be enough time left in the legislative session to work through a new proposal. Beverly said lawmakers could consider Duncan's ideas next year.
“We build on laws every day here. Let’s build on this,” Beverly said. “This is just the opening salvo to a bigger statement. It’s not the closing argument.”
Duncan, though, said there is enough time for his bill to move through, urging listeners to avoid “playing petty politics, generating unnecessary synthetic friction between the House and the Senate, and comparing Republican ideas to Democratic ones.”