Hate crime bill dead in committee

Update: The bill to expand hate crime definitions has died in committee. That’s the end of that (for this session, anyway).

Update #1 — January 27, 2015; 1:49 PM

By Victoria Zowitkowski

A bill to expand the definition and reporting of hate crimes to include sexual orientation and gender identity has died in a House subcommittee, thus killing the issue for this legislative session.

A subcommittee of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted along party lines Monday to table House Bill 1494. The four Republicans on the subcommittee voted in favor of the motion to shelve the bill; the two Democrats on the panel voted to keep the bill alive.

Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Arlington, was the chief sponsor of HB 1494. He told the subcommittee that the legislation would only slightly modify Virginia law.

“It’s not a bill that recognizes sexual orientation or gender identification as a protected class,” Sullivan said. “It’s not a bill approving of any kind of lifestyle; neither is it a bill creating a new crime. This is just trying to measure what we know is happening out on the streets of the commonwealth.”

Virginia State Police, which supported the bill, already track hate crimes committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sullivan said House Bill 1494 would simply codify that practice.

Lt. Tom Bradshaw of the State Police said the agency uses the same criteria for sexual orientation or gender identity hate crimes that it uses to label religious or racially based hate crimes. He said Virginia State Police have collected this data since 2002 and report it to the FBI, which compiles national statistics.

“We use the information to be more proactive in our enforcement efforts, rather than waiting for something to happen,” Bradshaw said. “If we see a trend with within whatever hate crime it might be, we can put assets out there and hopefully cut that off from actually happening.”

Kirsten Bokenkamp from Equality Virginia, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Virginians, said HB 1494 would “make our community safer – all of our community, not just the LGBT community.”

Steve Rossi, representing the Family Foundation of Virginia and the Virginia Association of Baptists, said those organizations opposed the bill. A member of the subcommittee – Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church – asked Rossi why.

“You’re saying it’s already being done,” Rossi said, “so why do we need to codify it?”

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, questioned Rossi’s point of view, noting that state law already categorizes other types of hate crimes. He asked Rossi why the state shouldn’t include the LGBT community along with racial and ethnic hate crimes.

Rossi said his organizations considered all crimes to be hate crimes. He also said the bill would not change State Police procedures on reporting hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

But Lopez challenged Rossi’s statement again.

“But if this would help police forces actually track and catch perpetrators, you’re saying they shouldn’t do it? ” Lopez asked. “You’re saying we should take out racial and ethnic because it’s one big thing?”

“No, I didn’t say that,” Rossi said. “Did you hear me say that? No, I didn’t say that.”

After the exchange between Rossi and Lopez died down, Del. Will Morefield, R-North Tazewell, chairman of the subcommittee, asked Bradshaw if codifying the law was necessary for the State Police to continue documenting and using hate crime information.

Bradshaw said the agency would continue to use the information for a more proactive, rather than reactive, approach to policing.

Morefield made the motion to “lay the bill on the table.” Joining him in voting for the motion were Republican Dels. Mark Berg of Winchester, Buddy Fowler of Ashland and Nick Rush Christiansburg.

“These crimes are certainly terrible,” Morefield said. “But I do think that the State Police is already collecting this type of information, and that it’s something that they can go ahead and do.”

Simon and Lopez, who co-sponsored HB 1494, voted against the motion to table the bill.

With the subcommittee’s vote, the issue of including sexual orientation in the state’s definition of hate crimes is now dead for the General Assembly’s 2015 session.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, had filed a companion measure to HB 1494. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee rejected her proposal, Senate Bill 799, on Jan. 14.

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Original — January 21, 2015

By Noura Bayoumi

At a press conference, James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said many LGBT individuals face hardships. “LGBT individuals can still be fired from their job – or not hired at all – based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Parrish said. “They can also be discriminated against as they seek a place to live.”

He spoke the day after the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee defeated a proposal (Senate Bill 917) to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s fair housing law and to stop landlords from discriminating against tenants who are LGBT.

Last week, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated SB 799, which would have broadened the definition of “hate crime” to include “a criminal act committed against a person because of sexual orientation or gender identification.”

At the news conference, Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, said the bill would have given law enforcement agencies more data for addressing crimes against LGBT Virginians.

“About 20 percent of hate crimes are perpetuated against those with either gender identification or sexual orientation issues,” said Favola, the chief sponsor of SB 799. “We have to reach a point where every Virginian is protected, every Virginian feels safe and every Virginian has the support of our government.”

Although SB 799 is dead, an identical measure – House Bill 1494 – is pending in the House of Delegates, awaiting consideration by the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr., D-Arlington, is the chief sponsor of HB 1494. He said he views it as a law enforcement bill – not just an LGBT bill. FBI Director James Comey also agrees on the need for better reporting of hate crimes, Sullivan said.

“When a family is attacked because of the color of their skin, it’s not just the families that feel violated but every resident in that neighborhood,” Sullivan said. “When a teenager is murdered because he’s gay, the entire community feels a sense of hopelessness and despair. And when innocent people are shot at random because of their religious beliefs, real or perceived, our nation is left at a loss.”

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