If you’re wondering about that in light of recent events, here’s an overview.
California defines a hate crime as any crime that you commit, in whole or in part, because of a victim’s actual or perceived race, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, or association with those who bear these characteristics.
The phrase “in whole or in part” is important. It means you can be guilty of a hate crime even if your bias wasn’t the only thing that motivated you. It doesn’t even have to be the main thing, in fact, as long as it was a substantial motivating factor. Under the law, a substantial factor is more than a trivial or remote factor but not necessarily the sole or main factor.
The phrase “actual or perceived” is important, too. It means you can be guilty of a hate crime even if it turns out you were wrong about the victim’s race, gender, religion, ancestry, disability, sexual orientation, or associations. What matters is your motive and mental state, not whether the victim actually belonged to or associated with the group in question.
Beyond that, the law defines the other terms broadly, too. The term “victim” can refer to a single person, a group of people, or a place where people gather like an office, library, meeting hall, place of worship, public agency, or community center. The term “gender” includes a person’s sex at birth as well as his or her gender identity or gender-related appearance or behavior. The term “religion” includes atheism and agnosticism.
What are the possible charges and punishments?
The main hate-crime statutes are found in a section of the Penal Code that concerns civil rights, so let’s start there. See generally Pen. Code §§ 422.55–422.93.
First, it’s a misdemeanor if you interfere with people’s civil rights (like the right to vote) by force, threats, harassment, or damage to property. But you can’t be convicted for speech alone unless you threatened violence and had the apparent ability to carry out the threat. If convicted, you face imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, a fine of up to $5,000, or both. You’ll also have to perform community service for up to 400 hours in one year.
Furthermore, the misdemeanor can be charged as a felony if you have a prior misdemeanor conviction, posed a threat of violent injury, caused actual physical injury, or caused property damage over $950. If convicted of a felony, you face imprisonment in the county jail for up to three years, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.
Finally, the government can charge any felony as a hate crime if it alleges and proves that you committed the crime out of bias toward the victim’s protected characteristics. If you’re convicted of that special allegation, the court will tack on an extra one, two, or three years to your prison sentence. Or if you’re found to have acted in concert with another person in committing the hate crime, the court will impose an extra two, three, or four years in prison. You’re more likely to receive the high terms if you used a gun, and if you have prior felony hate-crime convictions, you’ll get an extra year in prison for each one.