What is a hate crime? Under New York law, it's a two part analysis. First, the crime committed must be one enumerated by the legislature. Examples of this are assaults, murders, robberies, arsons, burglaries, and rapes. It is an expansive list.
The second step is that the suspect intentionally select the victim because of a belief regarding race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation. This is where it gets complicated.
White on black, black on white, Hispanic on black, white on Arab, or any other combination does not automatically elevate a crime to a hate crime. There must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was targeted because of their status.
It adds an element to the crime. Some states will not charge a hate crime because of this additional burden. In an assault case, we only have to prove the defendant intentionally caused injury to a person. If it is charged as a hate crime, we now have to prove the crime was motivated by hate for a class of people. If not, the jury can acquit the defendant.
A few examples from cases:
An African-American victim is walking down the street holding a cell phone. Four African-Americans jump him, beat him up, and steal his phone. During the assault they call him a "faggot." The victim is homosexual, but never saw the defendants before in his life.
An African-American suspect calls a cab. An African-American driver comes in a small taxi. The suspect asks for a van. A Somali driver comes in a van. The suspect takes his money and phone, and shoots him in the head. Seven months later the same suspect and two Hispanic men agree to rob a cab. The suspect tells them he has done it before. He also says that they cannot rob "black or white cabbies, they don't carry no money. You gotta do an Arab. They carry all the cash." They then rob a Pakistani driver at gun point.
What do you think? Are these hate crimes?
I've discussed the ability to use a person's prior bad acts against them. The courts dislike the practice. But, with hate crimes, isn't the only way to get proof of a person's beliefs to investigate their history and see their views against a class of people? It is very rare that we get any evidence during a crime to show us it was racially motivated. Don't hate crimes now require us to judge a person's past too?
Federal courts do not have jurisdiction over murders or other cases without some special connection. The only way the federal government will prosecute George Zimmerman is if they determine the crime was racially motivated.
Media, investigators, attorneys, police, and private citizens are digging into George Zimmerman's history as we speak. Any racially motivated acts will be uncovered. The real question becomes what does the government do with that information? If it exists, can they use it against him? How far back can they go? Is it fair? Or should they only be able to use the facts that surrounded the actual event?