In the upcoming legislative session, Attorney General Mark R. Herring and legislative partners will reintroduce a package of legislation to protect Virginians from hate crimes and white supremacist violence. Republican-controlled committees have repeatedly blocked Attorney General Herring’s efforts in the past. The bills will update the Commonwealth’s hate crime and domestic terrorism laws, protect Virginians from violence and intimidation by hate groups and white supremacists, and make it harder for hate groups and white supremacists to threaten, intimidate, or hurt Virginians with firearms.
Over the summer, Attorney General Herring reemphasized the need for the General Assembly to pass legislation to address hate crimes and white supremacist violence after FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that “a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call ‘white supremacist violence’”. Director Wray told lawmakers that the FBI has recorded about 90 domestic terrorism arrests in a nine month period, most of which involved some form of white supremacy, representing an uptick from the year before.
“For years I have watched as the number of hate crimes in Virginia and around the country rise and turn deadly all too often,” said Attorney General Herring. “My hate crimes and white supremacist violence bills have been bottled up in Republican-controlled committees for years, but this year, with a new General Assembly, we will pass this critical legislation. We have to send a message to the peddlers of hate that they are not welcome here and their hate and violence will not be tolerated in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is time we give our law enforcement agencies the tools and help that they need to prevent these acts of hate and violence that threaten our communities. And above all, we need to make it clear to vulnerable communities that we stand with them and we will protect and care for them as valuable members of our Virginia family.
“It is well past time that these measures pass in Virginia and I want to thank all the legislative partners who have helped me with this crucial initiative. I will not let up until every Virginian can live without fear of violence and hate because of what they look like, how they worship, where they came from, or who they love.”
A recently released report from the Virginia State Police shows that over the last 6 years, hate crimes in Virginia have risen by about 31 percent. Last year there were a total of 161 hate crimes in the state, including 97 racially-motivated crimes, 25 crimes based on religion, and 23 crimes based on sexual orientation bias.
The FBI’s annual Hate Crimes Statistics report showed that, in 2018, there were 8,496 hate crime offenses committed, including 5,566 against persons and 2,641 against property. Additionally, 7,036 single-bias incidents were reported, including 57.5 percent racially motivated incidents, 20.2 percent motivated by religious affiliation, and 17 percent motivated by sexual orientation bias.
Attorney General Herring and his team have worked with stakeholders from across the Commonwealth to develop legislation that will update hate crime laws and clearly define what constitutes a hate crime in Virginia, update domestic terrorism laws, and allow localities to decide whether firearms are permitted at events.
The bills are:
- Updating Virginia’s definition of “hate crime”: This bill will create protections against hate crimes committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. (Delegate Ken Plum and Senator Barbara Favola)
- Empowering the Attorney General to prosecute hate crimes: This bill will allow the Attorney General to prosecute hate crimes through the Commonwealth’s network of multijurisdictional grand juries. (Delegate Lamont Bagby)
- Prohibiting Paramilitary Activity: This bill will further restrict the kind of paramilitary activity by white supremacist militias and similar groups that was seen in Charlottesville in August 2017. (Senator Louise Lucas)
- Making domestic terrorism a sentencing enhancement: This bill will create stronger sentences for those convicted of an act of domestic terrorism.
- Firearms at Permitted Events: This bill authorizes communities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event, or an event that would otherwise require a permit.
- Keeping guns away from those convicted of hate crimes. This bill will close a loophole and ensure that anyone convicted of a hate crime is barred from possessing a gun. (Delegate Rip Sullivan)
“We are witnessing an increase in hate, violence, xenophobic rhetoric and bias-motivated actions targeting Jews, Muslims, immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ individuals. One vital step to confront this trend is legislation that will broaden the protected categories under Virginia’s hate crime statute, ensuring our laws protect our diversity and acknowledge the fullness of the identities of those who call the Commonwealth home,” said Doron F. Ezickson, Anti-Defamation League Washington, D.C. Regional Director.
“Every Virginian should feel welcome in our community and deserves to have equal protections under the law,” said Senator Barbara Favola (31st District). “We must send the message that violence or harassment based on someone’s gender identification or perceived sexual orientation will not be tolerated in Virginia. This is quite simply a public safety issue – when one of us is not safe, no one is safe.”
“Society is changing and evolving and it is crucial that Virginia’s hate crimes definition reflects those changes,” said Delegate Ken Plum (36th District). “I want to thank Attorney General Herring for working with me on this legislation for many years now, and this year, with a Democratic majority, it will finally pass, giving more Virginians the protections they deserve.”
“We each have a right, as Virginians, to feel safe and protected from hate in our communities,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby (74th District). “No one should fear for their safety because of what they look like, who they are, where they came from, who they love or how they pray. I am proud to partner with Attorney General Herring on this legislation and I am looking forward to finally having it pass this year.”
“It is past time that the words in the Code of Virginia reflect the values of Virginians,” said Delegate Rip Sullivan (48th District). “Making sure that hate crimes committed against a person based on sexual orientation or gender identity are reported to the State Police is just another way that we can be accountable to ourselves as Virginians by getting an accurate picture of this urgent issue. I commend Attorney General Herring for continuing to spearhead this important initiative and I look forward to seeing these measures pass this year.”
Last year, Attorney General Herring traveled around the state to hear from different communities, faith leaders, and community members about how they have been affected by the hate crimes and hateful rhetoric seen in Virginia and the country. He held a series of roundtable discussions in Leesburg, Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, Norfolk and Roanoke to hear about the first-hand experiences of vulnerable communities and to discuss ways to help them feel more protected.
For years Attorney General Herring has been raising awareness of the threat of white supremacist violence and proposing new laws to keep Virginians safe. Attorney General Herring’s proposed bills would update the Commonwealth’s hate crime and domestic terrorism laws, protect Virginians from violence and intimidation by hate groups and white supremacists, and make it harder for hate groups and white supremacists to threaten, intimidate, or hurt Virginians with firearms. In addition to his legislative proposals, Attorney General Herring launched www.NoHateVA.com to give vulnerable communities more information and resources to protect themselves from hate crimes and white supremacist violence.
Additionally, Attorney General Herring issued an advisory opinion last summer concluding that it could be unlawful for individuals or groups to “assume the functions” of a law enforcement agency, meaning that if a group or private militia dresses in military clothing, is heavily armed, and tells people they are there to “keep the peace” or performing any other type of police function they could be committing a crime.