The recent case of New Jersey v. Dharun Ravi ignited a national debate over what hate crime laws mean in the eyes of the courts.
Ravi was convicted on 15 counts of bias intimidation-- invasion of privacy, attempted invasion of privacy, evidence tampering, witness tampering and hindering apprehension or prosecution. A Rutgers University student at time of charge, Ravi used a webcam to spy on his freshman roommate, Tyler Clementi having a sexual encounter with another man. On two separate instances, Ravi also encouraged his friends to join him in the spying using the social network Twitter. The next day, Clementi committed suicide. Ravi was charged with six different crimes including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, which is New Jersey’s form of hate crime legislation.
Under the NJ State Penal Code, an individual can be found guilty of bias intimidation if he commits a crime for which the victim “reasonably believes” he was trying to intimidate him on the basis of group bias (§2C:16-1). By the legal definition, intimidate means to put in fear or make fearful. In this example, Clementi may have been fearful of being spied on or exposed through a breach in privacy.
It’s irrelevant that the perpetrator intended to intimidate on the basis of some bias. If any given person could find a reason to believe that the intended victim was targeted based on his or her race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity, the perpetrator could be found guilty.
To clarify, random actions targeting an individual based upon his protected class status is not enough to constitute bias intimidation. The action must also be committed in furtherance of another crime, invasion of privacy or assault, for example. For instance, simply calling an individual a racist name could not be considered bias intimidation since hate speech is against the law. According to New Jersey state laws, the penalties for the conviction on charges of bias intimidation can be a prison sentence for as much as 10 years.
This past March, Ravi was found guilty of both invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail, three years of probation, 300 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine and mandatory counseling.
While Ravi’s actions were clearly insensitive, immature and perhaps even wrong, some critics of the decision are resistant to label them as a hate crime. Evidence suggests that Ravi may have been uncomfortable with a homosexual roommate but it does not prove that he held a bias against Clementi bases on his sexual orientation
To many, Ravi’s actions seem like the actions of misguided individual but not a hateful one. For many, the punishment does not fit the crime. Others also worry about hate crime laws since they seem to be prosecuting individuals more harshly because of their beliefs.
Of course the flip side of that argument is that hate crime laws protect minority groups. Nevertheless, in the mind of the jury, Clementi had enough reason to believe that he was being targeted and under current New Jersev state law, it’s enough to classify it as a hate crime.