Changes Proposed To Florida Hate Crimes Law

Florida Sen. Kevin Rader speaks at Broward Sheriff's Office. Photo by John McDonald

Florida’s LGBT population will be protected under proposed changes to the state’s hate crimes laws.

On Monday morning, members of the Florida Hate Crime Coalition gathered at Broward Sheriff’s Office to announce critical amendments to Florida’s hate crime law are needed.

“It’s just common sense,” said Florida Senator Kevin Rader (D-Boca Raton). “It just adds a few words.”

Protected statuses in Rader’s bill include race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, homeless status, advanced age, gender, gender identity and disability.

“Hate crimes target victims simply for who they are,” Rader said, standing behind a podium flanked by law enforcement officers.

Increased sentences for criminals who commit hate crimes, Rader said, “are a way for society to recognize that these crimes strike special fear within victimized groups, fragment communities and tear at the basic fabric of our democratic way of life.”

Wilton Manors Police Chief Paul O’Connell attended the press conference on behalf of Broward County Police Chiefs Organization.

“We can never say mission accomplished,” O’Connell said. “This bill is a step in the right direction.”

The Florida Hate Crime Coalition includes more than 45 departments, agencies and organizations. Leading the way is the Anti-Defamation League, which organized Monday morning’s press conference. Lonny Wilk, the ADL’s Senior Associate Regional Director, said hate crimes do not punish thought or speech.

“Americans are free to believe and say whatever they want,” Wilk said. “Hate crimes only punish criminal acts, such as aggravated assault or vandalism.”

Prosecuting hate crimes is difficult, Wilk said, because there is a “very high legal threshold.”

Rader’s bill, SB 588, adds gender, gender identity and disability to the current statute on hate crimes. It has a companion bill in the Florida House, co-sponsored by Representatives Joseph Geller (D-Dania Beach) and Al Jacquet (D-West Palm Beach). Geller spoke to the media Monday at BSO headquarters.

“The hate crimes law is very essential to what we do in the state of Florida to try to keep prejudice out of people’s motivations as much as possible,” Geller said. “There are people in our society who are haters, but what we need to do — wherever possible — is to take action to make sure that those prejudices do not impact our citizenry.”

Geller said there were holes in the law that needed to be fixed. He acknowledged gender identity and physical disability had resulted in people being targeted.

When asked about the bill’s chances in Tallahassee, Geller said, “We’re very optimistic.”

Luis S. Caso, an assistant state attorney in Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s Miami office, said crimes against LGBT people are often violent and many times go unreported.

In 2016, the Florida Attorney General reported 124 hate crimes were reported by state law enforcement – a 22 percent increase from the year prior. Getting law enforcement agencies to record this data is a challenge, Caso said. In 2016, only 49 of Florida’s 396 law enforcement agencies reported hate crimes.

Col. Jack Dale of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, said BSO is united behind Sen. Rader’s bill.

“As an organization that values diversity and protection of all individuals we propose changes to current legislation to give law enforcement better tools to hold those accountable who commit criminal acts of hatred against members of our community,” Col. Dale said.