SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator is hoping to revive a bill that attempted to beef up Utah’s hate-crime laws but was shot down by the Utah Senate last year.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, voted in favor of the bill sponsored by now-resigned Sen. Stephen Urquhart last year.
Like Urquhart’s bill, Thatcher’s proposal would allow prosecutors to bump up the penalties for crimes if proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender chose the victim or victims based on protected classifications of “ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.”
A class A misdemeanor, for example, would be elevated to a third-degree felony under the proposal.
Thatcher, in presenting a draft version of the bill to the Utah Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday, said he was "very surprised" to find himself sponsoring it.
Rather than calling it a hate crimes bill, he is calling it a "victim selection" bill.
"This has nothing to do with what you think hate crimes is," said Thatcher, who emphasized that it is not just minorities who would be protected.
If someone targeted a white man for his race, Thatcher said, “it would absolutely apply, and I would not have touched this bill if it did not offer the same level of protection to every single human being that sets foot in the state of Utah, whether you are white (or) whether you are Chinese.”
Thatcher said Urquhart's "absolutely brilliant" bill was killed by misunderstanding and lack of time.
He emphasized the difference between expressing prejudiced opinions — which is protected by the First Amendment — and committing a crime or inciting others to violence against people of different races, religions or sexual orientations.
Thatcher faced questions from several members of the committee, including Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, who asked whether membership in a book club, obesity or baldness would count as protected classes.
“If that’s the case, then why don’t we include occupation, because one of the most targeted classes is law enforcement?” Oda asked.
Thatcher said he is considering including law enforcement as a named class in the bill.
“But bald people, fat people, people in book clubs, that’s not the same experience as Jews, or blacks, or homosexuals in the state of Utah,” he added. “And pretending that they are on the same level and that it’s the same experience is disrespectful to these groups.”
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, expressed skepticism that the law would deter future hate crimes.
He also asked why hate crimes should be treated differently than other crimes "that send a chill through the community."
"We've had an arsonist in Provo last year in Utah County who set over 20 fires — that sends a chill among the community even though the victims are not necessarily being targeted," Weiler said. "If we have any type of serial killer, that sends a chill through the community. We don't punish extra for those 'chills'? Why is this 'chill' different?"
Thatcher acknowledged that stiffer penalties may not always deter a potential offender. But he said that people who are willing to commit crimes against specific groups of people “because of their desire to terrorize” should be “kept out of society just a little bit longer.”
"Should it be the same to spray paint a smiley face and 'Have a nice day' on a synagogue than to spray paint a swastika and the words 'Die, Jews'?" Thatcher said. "Are those the same crimes? The answer is, in the state of Utah, yes, it is exactly the same crime."
Later in the same meeting, newly appointed Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, presented a draft of a bill that would make it a crime to intentionally post a law enforcement officer's address, phone number or other personal details online in an attempt to single them out for harm.
Ipson was supported by Salt Lake Police Sgt. Brett Olsen, an officer made famous for his role in taking down the Trolley Square shooter in 2007, and who later gained notoriety for shooting and killing a dog during a search for a missing toddler.
"My children were harassed in the schools, people all over were against my use of force in that scenario," Olsen said. "Where it really came to a head was when I started finding my information posted all over the internet."
Olsen described receiving phone calls from anonymous people suggesting his children be shot and his wife raped.
The committee did not take action on either of the two drafts of the bills. It will meet again in October.