MINOT, N.D. — Hate crime policy is the sort of thing politicians get up to when the core, though admittedly more mundane, elements of their jobs prove too pedestrian.
Plowing the roads and managing the waste are important jobs, but garner little glory.
Fargo City Commissioner Arlette Preston is proposing a city ordinance that "would address crimes where an individual is targeted with violence or threats of violence because of their race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity," as Barry Amundson reports.
The ordinance would carry a fine of $1,500 and 30 days in jail, the stiffest penalty which can be imposed for violating an ordinance.
This is a terrible idea, from concept to execution.
"Hate" or "bias" crime policies ask us to suppose that some victims are more important than other victims based on characteristics like skin color or sexual orientation. If someone proposed a policy treating defendants this way, leveling higher or lower penalties based on the perpetrator's skin color, right-thinking people would be outraged.
Yet treating victims differently based on skin color is fine?
How about treating them differently based on geography?
What Preston proposes is illegal under state law.
North Dakota already has a "hate crime" statute under 12.1-14-04 of the state Century Code. It's a class B misdemeanor. What's more, the state also has a statute specifically prohibiting cities like Fargo from doing what Preston wants to do. Section 12.1-01-05 of the Century Code states: "Crimes defined by state law shall not be superseded by city or county ordinance or by home rule city's or county's charter or ordinance."
There's a reason for this statute. If it didn't exist, North Dakota's criminal code would be a patchwork. If Preston gets her way, a rape in Casselton might not be as serious a crime as a rape in Fargo.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in equality under the law for everybody, regardless of things like geography or skin color.
We also need to consider that this ordinance would give Fargo a pecuniary interest in perceiving hate crimes.
"Preston said she would want the Human Relations Commission to serve as a watchdog to monitor reports and ensure the city enforces the ordinance," Amundson reports, which means a political branch of city government would be applying pressure to law enforcement to find hate crimes when each successful conviction produces $1,500 in revenue for the city.
Under state law, those fines go to the state's Common Schools Trust Fund to avoid incentivizing policing for profit. No such buffer exists at the municipal level. Fines levied for violating city ordinances go into city coffers.
That financial incentive is why there has been such a push by city governments and their lobbyists to raise traffic fines above state levels and expand the jurisdictional authority of municipal courts that often presided over by judges with no formal legal training.
Now the city wants a new ordinance, complete with a new fine, for "bias crime."
Is Fargo out for justice? Or money?
Proposing this sort of policy may be good politics, but it's not good policy. In theory, detecting a racial motive in a crime is easy, but in practice it's hard. Even as I write this we have headlines from Georgia where a white man stands accused of murdering several people, most of them Asian, at multiple massage parlor locations in Atlanta.
Politicians and celebrities and pundits (not that there are many distinctions between the three these days) jumped to the conclusion that the crimes were racially motivated.
Yet the accused is saying he was motivated by sex addiction. How do you go about proving otherwise?
Should it even matter? He murdered other human beings in cold blood. Even if he was motivated by anti-Asian animus, how does that make those deaths more of an injustice?
Preston will no doubt cash in on the attention this proposal gives her, and her city government (along with its police department) may cash in on the revenue it produces if ordinances passes and withstands legal challenge, but there's no getting around the fact that it's bad policy.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.