Testimony on Hate Crime Civil Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019

Statement of Toni Michelle Jackson, Deputy Attorney General, Public Interest Division, Office of the Attorney General  

Before the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety, Charles Allen, Chairperson

Public Hearing on "B23-0513―Hate Crime Civil Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019"

March 3, 2020
Time 2:30pm
Room 120
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20004

Introduction

Greetings Chairman Allen, Councilmembers, staff, and residents of the District of Columbia. My name is Toni Michelle Jackson, and I have the privilege to serve as the Deputy Attorney General of the Public Interest Division in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. I am pleased to appear before the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety on behalf of Attorney General Karl A. Racine to testify on B23-0513 “The Hate Crime Civil Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019,” which was introduced in response to the scourge of bias-motivated violence afflicting our community.

This legislation ensures that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has the tools it needs to respond to discrimination and civil rights violations that harm the people of the District. It expressly authorizes OAG to bring civil hate crimes charges, and it expands the range of rights that OAG and individuals can protect.

This legislation is about justice and accountability. With this bill, we are telling all members of our community who have been marginalized by illegal acts of intolerance that we see them, we care about them, and we want to seek justice on their behalf. There must be consequences for bias-motivated crimes.

I will first provide some context for the urgent need for this legislative reform before turning to the major provisions of this bill.

Bias-Motivated Violence is on the Rise But Our Laws Are Not Adequately Enforced

Bias-motivated violence is on the rise in the District of Columbia. MPD’s data show that the total number of bias-motivated violent incidents more than doubled from 2011 to 2019. The LGBTQ+ community bears the brunt of this burden: bias-motived crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity account for nearly half of all reported bias crimes in recent years. Just this past December, LGBTQ staff at a local Mexican restaurant received homophobic phone calls and death threats after they hosted gatherings for the queer community. And, violence against transgender people has been particularly extreme. Tragically, three transgender women were murdered in the D.C. area last year alone.

Unfortunately, attacks based on ethnicity, race and national origin are also increasing. Preliminary MPD data from 2019 suggest that this category of crimes increased by 20% last year. Given that bias-motivated crimes often go unreported, the actual numbers are likely even higher.

We know that bias-motivated violence is a problem not just from data, but from the lived experiences of our neighbors and constituents. Last year, OAG held a series of five listening sessions across the District to hear directly from residents about civil rights issues in their communities. In every listening session, we heard from attendees about violence against the LGBTQ+ community and the rise of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant violence. In addition, Attorney General Racine met with LGBTQ+ advocates last summer to discuss civil rights issues, and the spike in violence targeting that community was their primary concern.

Our local police department deserves credit for its leadership in responding to these problems. MPD is known around the country for its rigorous data collection and reporting of bias-motivated incidents. MPD also has a dedicated, experienced unit that examines these cases to ensure a comprehensive response. This work should be commended. We’re falling short, however, when it comes to enforcement of our hate crimes statute.

Here in the District, it is the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and not OAG, that prosecutes adults for most crimes. So, it is the U.S. Attorney’s Office that decides whether to enforce our statute that enhances penalties for bias-motivated violence. And time and again, the USAO has failed to pursue this bias enhancement. Last year, The Washington Post profiled the case of a lesbian construction worker who was shot in the chest by a man who perceived her clothing as too masculine. The USAO declined to treat this shooting as a bias-motived crime. And last year, although police referred more than 50 bias-motivated cases for prosecution, the USAO sought bias-related enhancements in fewer than a dozen.

These examples show why the people of the District need a government that is accountable to them; our anti-discrimination laws were passed for a reason, and they should be enforced. That is why we are grateful to the Council for investing in OAG’s ability to do just that. As of this fiscal year, we have a new Civil Rights Section staffed by four attorneys and an investigator working to address discrimination, harassment, and, importantly, violence. In its first months, our Civil Right Section brought a lawsuit against a property company with nearly 250 rental units east of the Anacostia River that refused to rent to people who use housing vouchers and posted discriminatory advertisements. We investigated, filed suit, and obtained a preliminary injunction halting the illegal practices. In settlement of the case, the property company will pay $900,000 to the District and provide anti-discrimination training to its employees. We also sued three other property companies and a real estate broker for discriminating against low-income tenants in their portfolio of almost 1,000 rental units in Wards 1, 2, and 3.  

We have a bill before Councilmember Todd’s Committee on Government Operations that clarifies our ability to bring these lawsuits under the Human Rights Act, and we encourage the Council to bring that bill forward for a vote.

This Legislation Equips OAG to Address Bias-Motivated Offenses Under Civil Law

Turning to the legislation before you today, there are important civil actions we can bring to combat the rise in bias-motivated violence. The “Hate Crime Civil Enforcement Clarification Amendment” Act will allow us to fully harness the power of our office to bring this type of litigation to achieve justice and accountability for the people of the District.

This legislation makes several meaningful changes to the District’s existing bias crimes statute. It empowers the Office of the Attorney General to hold perpetrators of bias-motivated offenses accountable with civil penalties and injunctions; it expands the types of rights protected under the statute; and it clarifies that protections extend to people with all sorts of disabilities, not just physical. I will touch on each of these provisions in turn.

First, this bill empowers OAG to pursue civil penalties, restitution, and other legal relief against perpetrators of bias-motivated crimes—regardless of whether the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes these offenses. This clarification recognizes the important role the Office of the Attorney General plays in enforcing such crimes and signals to the entire District that we stand in partnership with crime victims to eradicate this form of discrimination and violence in the District. Under current law, crime victims carry the burden of bringing a private lawsuit if they wish to seek financial penalties from their abusers, an onerous task because victims are often focused on recovering from trauma and because of the difficulty of finding a lawyer where financial recovery is uncertain. We should not ask victims who are recovering from trauma to shoulder this burden on their own.

It is the government’s job to enforce our laws, particularly for matters of such significant public importance as the safety, wellbeing, and inclusion of all people of the District. By spelling out OAG’s civil authority to act in the face of bias-motivated violence, this legislation enables OAG to seek justice for marginalized members of our community and gives them a voice even when federal prosecutors fail to act.

Second, this bill expands the types of rights protected under the statute by broadening the conduct that qualifies as a bias-motived offense. In addition to providing a cause of action against those who commit violent offenses based on protected classes like race, gender identity, religion or national origin, this bill creates a cause of action for offenses that interfere with rights protected by District and federal law. That means, for example, that if an individual commits a violent offense to interfere with a person’s right to vote, the victim or the Attorney General can bring a civil cause of action under the statute.

Finally, this legislation makes a technical but meaningful clarification when it comes to bias against people with disabilities. Existing law creates a civil cause of action for offenses motivated by the victim’s physical disability. This bill eliminates the word “physical,” making it clear that bias-motivated offenses are actionable when based on any disability—physical or not.

This legislation brings District law in line with other states that are leading the civil rights charge. For instance, Maine and Massachusetts have had laws like this on the books for decades and have used them to meaningful effect. The Maine Attorney General has obtained 300 civil injunctions for bias-motivated incidents since 1992. In just one of many examples from Massachusetts, the Attorney General obtained a preliminary injunction against a man who used a homophobic slur and violently attacked three people at a bar. Meanwhile, the Michigan Attorney General is organizing a special unit to pursue criminal and civil action for bias-motivated incidents. The District’s Human Rights Act has afforded residents some of the most sweeping civil rights protections for more than forty years. By matching those protections with explicit public enforcement powers related to hate crimes, this bill preserves our place as a leading civil rights jurisdiction.

But more important than our rank among our sister jurisdictions is our accountability to our residents and neighbors here at home. As part of our citizens’ elected government, we have a responsibility to ensure that District residents are free to live their lives and express their identities safely. And when individuals harm others based on hate, we have a duty to hold them accountable and to signal to our entire community that such actions are unacceptable. This bill will help us do just that.

Conclusion

I appreciate the opportunity to testify on this legislation. The Office of the Attorney General is committed to vigorously enforcing our city’s laws to make the District a place where all people can live, love, work and play without fear of illegal discrimination or hate. The “Hate Crime Civil Enforcement Clarification Amendment Act of 2019” will equip us with the tools we need to combat the scourge of bias-motivated violence afflicting our city. I am happy to answer any questions that members may have. 

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