Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, January 18, 1999

‘Hate crimes’ law
would flop here

IT is hard not to sympathize with those who want to pass a "hate crimes" law in Hawaii, especially considering recent horrific examples of crimes against gays and doctors who perform abortions.

The effort by a recently formed coalition of community groups is based on frustration. Frustration that certain crimes that seem to be motivated by hate are not adequately punished. But the reality is a so-called "hate crimes" law would not work in Hawaii. In fact, it would probably further confuse a judiciary already reluctant to punish even garden variety criminals.

To begin with, if there were a "hate crimes" law, every special interest group would consider virtually any crime against one of its members as a crime motivated by hate. What's wrong with that? Well, judges already have discretion to sentence violent offenders to long prison stays and have seemed unwilling to do it.

The recent sentencing of a guy who took part in a brutal beating and robbery of a North Shore tourist is a case in point. The judge let one of the muggers off with a short jail sentence and probation, when she could have sentenced him to five years. Should she have sentenced him to a longer term because he was a 'local' man and the victim was 'haole?' I'm sure the victim would argue the assault was racially motivated. Would he have been attacked if he were not a haole? I'd say, probably yes. But the prosecution, knowing the judge's reticence at handing out prison time for run-of-the-mill vicious assaults, would contend it was a "hate crime."

But how do you prove it? In another famous local case, a man was cleared of homicide charges in the killing of a gay man that he had met at a gay bar. The jury was not even willing to convict the defendant of manslaughter. Would it have ruled differently if it had been asked to determine it was specifically a "hate crime" against a homosexual? I don't think so. That jury was not going to convict no matter what.

The point is if juries would just convict people of crimes that are on the books already and if judges would sentence defendants according to the true severity of their offenses, the defendant's motive would not be an issue. And short of some dumb criminal actually proclaiming 'I'm beating you up because you're Catholic' or some such thing, it is nearly impossible to prove a crime is motivated by hate.

For instance, in high school here, I was often robbed (they called it by the charming name "being hijacked") by local punks. Once in class, a group of non-white students tied me up to a desk and the teacher fled in panic. Were those "hate crimes?" Maybe. Especially considering the hijackers usually said something like, 'F---ing haole, drop your money or I broke your a--.' So what? I would have been happy if school honchos provided enough security so that we wouldn't get robbed every time we stepped off campus or tied up when we stayed on campus. The ethnicity of the hijackers was irrelevant.

The problem with instituting a "hate crimes" law in Hawaii, as I have said before, is Hawaii truly is a melting pot. Everyone here is a minority either by race, gender, culture, religion, political leanings or sexual preference. Given the broad definition of "hate crime" as it has been interpreted on the Mainland, a majority of crimes in Hawaii would be considered motivated by hate. And if crimes motivated by hate carry more jail time, then local prosecutors will charge each offense as a "hate crime" in an effort to put perpetrators away for as long as possible. That is their job. That's what they do.

I'm as frustrated as the next guy that violent idiots are getting out of jail and beating the rap. But the problem isn't the idiot's motivation, it's enforcement in general.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

or send E-mail to charley@nomayo.com or

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