The Seattle City Attorney’s Office is seeking an amendment to municipal code that would make it easier to charge and convict a person of committing a hate crime.
City Attorney Pete Holmes is asking the city council to remove the crime of malicious harassment from Seattle Municipal Code and to create a special allegation of hate crime, which could be applied to cases of assault, harassment and property destruction.
Councilmembers on the Civil Rights, Economic Development, Utilities & Arts Committee were provided with background on Tuesday, June 19.
Reported hate crimes and incidents in Seattle increased 230 percent from 2012 to November 2017, and the city has prosecuted seven malicious harassment charges in the past six years.
Deputy City Attorney John Schochet told the committee the city has a narrow set of protected classes it covers — anything not covered by the state. A hate crime special allegation would cover all classes, and could be applied to existing cases.
The city’s code for malicious harassment covers crimes alleged to have been committed maliciously and intentionally based on certain perceptions, such as a person’s homelessness, their marital status, age, political ideology or parental status.
The state has a felony malicious harassment law that covers all other protected classes, including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and physical and mental disabilities.
The hate crime special allegation wouldn’t require proving malice beyond a reasonable doubt, said Asha Venkataraman with Central Staff, like malicious harassment does, just that a crime of assault, harassment or property destruction was committed intentionally.
The city attorney’s office could also use the special allegation to request an increased sentence, within the limits of a misdemeanor sentencing range, Venkataraman said.
Schocet said the county prosecutor’s office does not typically prosecute a racially motivated assault where the victim is not substantially injured, but the city attorney’s office does, and would be able to apply the hate crime allegation if the council approves amending the municipal code.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold thanked the city attorney for proposing the changes.
With the current political climate, Herbold said, the city needs to send a “strong public message that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.”
The committee will receive another update on the bill in July. Herbold said she’d like to have more public engagement about the proposed change, as well as feedback from the four commissions operating within the Office of Civil Rights. She also wants to know if the change would affect how the Seattle Police Department handles what are currently malicious harassment cases.
“Changing these structures is part of bringing about a social change in making sure everyone’s human rights are protected,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant.