[author: Richard Dahl]
The New York Police Department Hate Crimes Unit is investigating an incident involving the scattering of raw bacon on a Staten Island park site prior to a religious gathering of Muslims observing the end of Ramadan on Aug. 19.
A handful of event organizers saw the bacon and removed it before the crowd of 1,500 worshippers arrived at New Dorp Beach Park to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar. The organizers contacted police and shifted the event to another part of the park, but didn’t telling worshippers about it because they didn’t want to distress them.
NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said police were investigating an anti-Muslim internet posting regarding the event, but no suspects had been identified.
Although there were no physical threats or dangers posed to Muslims, the incident should stand as a reminder that any targeted action motivated by bias or hatred can result in criminal charges or enhanced criminal charges.
New York’s Hate-Crimes Law May Apply
New York criminal defense lawyer Steven Brill points out that the state’s 12-year-old hate-crimes law, like those in many other states, is designed to enhance criminal punishment when hate is proven to be a reason for the crime. In the Staten Island incident, Brill said, police could make the case that the scattered bacon — Islam forbids the consumption of pork — constituted harassment.
“If your harassment is motivated by your hatred of another person’s religion, then in theory that could be a hate crime,” he said. “If cops want to prosecute something like that, it’s pretty easy for them to do.”
As a criminal defense lawyer, Brill has had experience in dealing with the New York hate-crime law and he says it can sometimes make his job a lot tougher when defending those accused of crimes. Shortly after the law was enacted in 2000, Brill handled one of the first New York cases in which prosecutors applied it. His clients, two young Hispanic males, were charged with assault following a fight they had with a young black man who alleged they called him “nigger” during the fight.
Brill said that on the basis of the alleged epithet, prosecutors raised the charge from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony. Brill said he argued “urban youths use that word constantly and it almost never has anything to do with its original meaning,” but following a bench trial, the judge disagreed and sentenced the two defendants to jail time they wouldn’t have served if the hate-crime law were not on the books.
“That really hit home to me as to what a hate crime could mean,” he said.
While Brill applauds the intention behind hate-crime laws, he also believes they carry an implicit broad-term risk.
Slippery Slope Toward ‘Thought Crimes’?
“I understand that society needs to stop hate, but when you criminalize it and send people to jail as a result of it, you run the risk of prosecuting people for what they’re thinking and not necessarily what they’re doing,” he said.
“You start to run the risk of prosecuting someone for the thoughts in their head and that can be a very slippery slope. If it’s not hate, maybe it’s anti-American thought or some other kind of thought that you also don’t think is good for society.”
But it also applies a strong tool for prosecutors to use against bigots who may think it’s funny to desecrate a Muslim religious observance.
Kelly said police are continuing their investigation.