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Laws on Hate Crimes and Enhanced Sentences in Florida

Laws on Hate Crimes and Enhanced Sentences in Florida

Florida has laws that specifically address hate crimes and provide for enhanced sentences for crimes motivated by prejudice. The key law is Florida statute 775.085, which allows for the reclassification of misdemeanors and felonies where the crime “evidences prejudice.”

What Qualifies as a Hate Crime in Florida

Under Florida law, a hate crime occurs when a person commits a crime and the commission of that crime “evidences prejudice” against the victim’s race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, homeless status, mental or physical disability, or advanced age. This covers a wide range of potential bias motivations.

Importantly, hate crimes include not only violent assaults but also property crimes like vandalism or trespassing. So for example, if someone spray painted a swastika on a synagogue, that would likely qualify as a hate crime even though it’s a property crime rather than a violent attack.

Penalty Enhancements for Hate Crimes

Under Florida statute 775.085, anyone convicted of a hate crime faces a reclassification to the next highest degree of crime, which enhances the potential sentence. Some examples:

  • A second degree misdemeanor gets reclassified to a first degree misdemeanor
  • A first degree misdemeanor gets reclassified to a third degree felony
  • A third degree felony gets reclassified to a second degree felony

So for a small crime like trespassing that would normally be a second degree misdemeanor, if it was charged as a hate crime, it could become a first degree misdemeanor with up to 1 year in jail. And a violent assault that would normally be a second degree felony could become a first degree felony with up to 30 years in prison.

The potential for greatly enhanced sentences is meant to convey the seriousness of crimes motivated by prejudice and deter people from committing them.

Civil Cause of Action for Hate Crime Victims

In addition to facing criminal charges, anyone convicted of a hate crime also opens themselves up to civil liability. Under Florida statute 775.085, hate crime victims can sue their attackers for treble (triple) damages plus attorney’s fees.

So victims don’t have to rely solely on prosecutors securing a criminal conviction. They can directly pursue financial compensation for their injuries, pain and suffering through the civil courts. This provides another avenue for accountability.

Criticisms of Hate Crime Laws

While hate crime laws aim to address crimes motivated by prejudice, there are some criticisms of them from both sides of the political spectrum:

  • They punish thoughts and speech rather than just actions. Because hate crime laws consider the motivation behind a crime, some see them as punishing people for their beliefs rather than just their actions. This raises concerns about infringement of free speech rights. However, defenders argue speech that directly incites violence is not protected.
  • They create special protected classes. Some conservatives argue hate crime laws improperly value some victims over others by creating special protected groups based on race, religion, sexual orientation etc. They think all victims should be valued equally under the law. However, advocates counter that hate crimes target victims specifically because of their identity and group membership.
  • They are unnecessary when crimes are already illegal. Some argue regular criminal laws are sufficient to address violent crimes without needing special hate crime laws. However, advocates think penalty enhancements are warranted for the additional harm caused by crimes motivated by prejudice.
  • They are difficult to prove. Prosecutors can face difficulties proving definitively that a crime was motivated by prejudice rather than other factors. This can make it challenging to pursue hate crime charges. Though new data collection efforts in Florida may help provide evidence.

So while Florida has strong legal protections against hate crimes, there are still debates around the need for and wisdom of such laws. Reasonable people can disagree on the matter.

Ultimately hate crimes have a deep impact not only on individual victims but also the communities they are meant to intimidate. Finding the right societal response remains a complex challenge. But education and prevention efforts are likely the most constructive path forward long-term.

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