After video footage of an anti-gay assault in Salt Lake City went viral, the alleged suspect was arrested and charged with one count of threatening to use a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault. But the case won’t be considered a hate crime because Utah doesn’t have a usable hate crime law.
Sal Trejo and his friends were out late in Salt Lake City a week ago when they overheard Carlo Sammy Alazo speaking on his phone, describing the group as “faggots” and “fat pigs.” Trejo attempted to call Alazo out and started filming him. When Alazo asked if he was gay, he then attacked, knocking the phone out of Trejo’s hands.
My friends and I were assaulted by this homophobic man in downtown Salt Lake City last night. Anyone know him? The police are interested in having a chat with him. #SaltLakeCity @slcpd @slcmayor @EqualityUtah pic.twitter.com/1tPFSCADOp
— Salonge Knowles (@saltrejo) February 17, 2019
According to the police report, Alazo then shoved Trejo’s friend Kelly Moore. He also brandished a butterfly knife and pointed it at Trejo, though he then dropped it. Such weapons are illegal in many states, but not Utah, nor Florida, where Alazo is from.
Despite the clear animus that motivated the attack, it cannot be charged as a hate crime. That’s because, according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Utah’s hate crimes law “is not worth the paper it’s written on.”
Utah’s law is already weaker than similar laws in many states because it doesn’t specify groups that might be targeted for hate. Instead, it simply applies to any crime committed “with the intent to intimidate or terrorize another person.” More importantly, the act must also demonstrate intent to cause a person to “reasonably fear to freely exercise or enjoy any right secured by the Constitution or laws of the state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
Gill explained that this high standard makes the law practically unenforceable. “We’ve never had a successful prosecution for the last 20 years on hate crime and the reason is we don’t have a statute we can rely upon,” he told Fox 13.
Utah lawmakers are considering a bill (SB 103) which would create more robust hate crime enforcement mechanisms. It would specify a list of protected classes that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and would implement enhanced penalties for hate crimes without the odd requirement of imposing on a constitutional right.
The case is indicative of how underreported hate crimes are across the country. An investigation by ProPublica found that local authorities frequently did not identify crimes as hate crimes even when there was clear evidence suggesting bias. And because states define hate crimes differently, records are inconsistent. For example, an anti-gay attack might be considered a hate crime under the law in one state, but not in another. That’s assuming the attack is reported as such in the first place.
Some 88 percent of the police agencies that agree to disclose their hate crime statistics report that they have none. Thus, when the National Crime Victimization Survey tries to estimate just how much biased crime is occurring, it finds a number 40 times higher than the total reported to the FBI.
Efforts to correct these inconsistencies have been met with considerable resistance. Like Utah, Indiana was also considering a more robust hate crimes law, but Republicans watered it down to such an extent this month that it will have no impact at all if it passes.
Organizations like the Matthew Shepard Foundation are attempting to provide training to law enforcement agencies to help them properly identify and report on hate crimes in their jurisdictions, but resources are limited.
Despite the limitations on accurate reporting, hate crimes are on the rise across the United States. And even in open-and-shut cases like the attack in Utah, many are still not being counted as such.