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Spencer Lawton, retired district attorney, Savannah, Georgia. (Courtesy photo) Spencer Lawton, retired district attorney, Savannah, Georgia. (Courtesy photo)

The recent upwelling of interest in “hate crime” legislation around the country has resulted in Georgia’s HB 426, recently signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp. The immediate urgency of this proposal grew out of a social convulsion sparked by the vile murder of a Black man committed by a white police officer, and a national reaction that has itself indiscriminately led to deaths and destruction of property of numerous other innocents. A conflagration of this sort would hardly seem an environment conducive to the kind of intelligent and sensitive consideration appropriate to important legislative acts. The resulting law proves the point.

It’s axiomatic that statutes should be drawn as narrowly as possible, with careful clarity and precision. A statute broadly drawn invites narrow and selective application. What does our new hate crime law say? It enumerates nine victim-attributes shared by virtually everybody on the planet, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality and mental or physical disability. If the offender commits some underlying offense against a victim, from simple assault to murder, this statute creates a separate crime if the offense was committed “because of” one of those attributes and provides for an additional sentence of “not less than two years” to be added to that imposed for the underlying offense. No upper limit for the add-on is given; might his “hate” cost the offender life imprisonment at the whim of the judge?

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