A bill that would expand Florida’s hate crime laws to those targeting people because of gender, gender identity, or disability won approval Tuesday at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
The panel voted 5-2 to support Democratic Sen. Lori Berman‘s Senate Bill 194, which would enhance criminal charges against someone who commits a crime against another because that person is a woman, a man, a transgender person, blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled. That would put the perpetrators at risk of longer sentences. It also could give prosecutors additional leverage to push for a plea deal.
It would do more than that, Berman argued.
“Hate crimes are a rot. They are a stain on our society,” Berman said. “This bill is actually more than a vehicle for increasing sentences. It recognizes that hate-motivated acts strike special fear in the entire community and that we here in Florida won’t tolerate it. It shows that we’re mindful that there has been bias-motivated violence. And that we will do what we can to protect the historically-victimized groups.”
The 5-2 vote saw Republican Sens. George Gainer and Jeff Brandes joining three Democratic senators, Chair Jason Pizzo, Bobby Powell, and Annette Taddeo, to support SB 194. Republican Sens. Dennis Baxley and Keith Perry voted no.
The bill now moves on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Brandes chairs.
The companion bill, Democratic Rep. Joseph Geller‘s House Bill 43, awaits hearings in several committees.
While much of Tuesday’s testimony came from the transgender community and its allies, the most compelling testimony might have come from an advocate that gender fall under the law to protect women. Jeff Binkley‘s daughter, Maura Binkley, was one of two women murdered, along with four others who were wounded, when a hate-filled misogynist shot up a Tallahassee yoga studio on Nov. 2, 2018. He was then killed in a shootout with police there.
Jeff Binkley, of Atlanta, founded the Maura’s Voice foundation to focus on the prevention of violence against women and girls, and on preventing violence driven by hate. He came to urge the senators to “take a stand against criminal hate as perpetrated against all its victims.”
“They were attacked for no other reason than being women. The perpetrator was a misogynist member of the incel subculture, members of which have perpetrated a number of deadly hate-driven attacks on women over the last several years,” Binkley said. “Yet the hate crime against Maura, Dr. [Nancy] Van Vessem (the other murder victim) and the other victims is not officially recognized as such in the state of Florida.”
Equality Florida, which advocates for protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Floridians, celebrated the vote. Florida law already defines hate crimes as including crimes against people because of their sexual orientation. However, transgendered people are not yet included.
“The LGBTQ community is all too familiar with hate violence. The murder of Matthew Shepard, the massacre at Pulse Nightclub, and the continued rise of deadly violence against Black transgender women in Florida are reminders of why this legislation is so needed,” Jon Harris Maurer, Equality Florida public policy director, stated in a news release. “We applaud this move by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and call on lawmakers to support victims of hate violence and give them the access to justice they deserve.”
There also was considerable discussion about the need to protect people who might be targeted because of hatred toward disabled people.
At one point Gainer, who initially appeared to oppose the bill, engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth discussion with Pizzo over how police and prosecutors might decide if a crime was a hate crime. Pizzo, a former prosecutor, essentially lectured Gainer on how such prosecutions would work, and why prosecutors could not haphazardly toss around hate crime charges.
“People can say whatever they want” about someone’s motivations, Pizzo said. “If the prosecutor doesn’t have competent evidence to move forward, then they shouldn’t. And they’re not going to be able to prove that someone’s intention or someone’s act was a result of their hatred of that particular type of person.”
It apparently worked. Gainer voted for the bill.
Perry said he had concerns about the definitions of people who qualify as victims of hate crimes and whether the state might be expanding those definitions to the point when it starts to lose meaning. Brandes raised similar concerns but he joined Gainer in voting yes.
“I just have an issue that we look at equal crimes, equal victims, and we say we value one victim over another victim,” Perry said.