Hate Crimes

Like 44 other states, Texas has a “hate crimes” statute where the sentence is enhanced due to a defendant’s motivation. Some would argue that those statutes criminalize people’s thoughts rather than their actions, but nevertheless the statute exists.

The FBI defines hate crimes as “a criminal offense committed against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.”

Texas’s hate crimes statute developed after an African American man was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in 1998. It was signed into law in 2001. Under Texas law, every crime except a First Degree Felony or a Class A Misdemeanor is increased to the next highest level of offense and an increased term of 180 days of jail or prison. For example, while manslaughter is generally a second degree felony, if it was a hate crime, the defendant will be sentenced to a first degree felony. In this situation, the maximum sentence would change from 20 years in prison to life in prison. In addition, the court can order a defendant sentenced under a hate crime enhancement to attend an educational program on tolerance. In the case of First Degree Felonies, those sentenced under a hate crime enhancement receive life imprisonment for not more than 99 years or less than 5 years. The fine is not to exceed $10,000.

In addition to the Texas hate crime statute, those charged may also find themselves under investigation by the FBI. Due largely to the Matthew Shepard case in Wyoming, hate crimes gained national attention that prompted the federal government to act. In 1998, two men took Mr. Shepard to a remote area and tied him to a fence where the beat him and left him for dead because he was gay. In response, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009 which also enhances sentences for those convicted under a hate crime enhancement.

Mr. Pham has extensive experience in cases where the prosecution makes a hate crime allegation. Often, that portion of the charge can be negotiated away in the plea bargain process. However, should the case go to trial, there are a multitude of defenses available to those charged. Remember, first and foremost, the prosecution must prove that the crime was motivated by hate, not just that the victim was in a “protected class” under the statute. In addition, the defenses of self-defense and mistaken identity have often proved successful.

If you or a loved one is facing a criminal charge with a hate crime enhancement, and you want an experienced and aggressive criminal defense lawyer, contact Houston attorney Michael H. Pham at (713) 236-7791.

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