A bill passed by the Michigan House of Representatives late last month could increase legal protection for people targeted in hate crimes.
The bill aims to strengthen the state’s existing 1931 hate crime law and comes on the heels of multiple cases of ethnic intimidation in the last year, including threats at Strange Matter Coffee Co. and threats to kill Jewish lawmakers.
House Bill 4474 includes new, clarified protections against ethnic intimidation and hate crimes, giving prosecutors more ability to press charges when these incidents occur. If passed by the state Senate and signed by the governor, the law would allow for hate crime charges when a person maliciously and intentionally uses force or violence; causes bodily injury; intimidates; damages personal, digital or online property; or threatens to do any of these things because of the race, color, age, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, national origin or disability status of a person.
The FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) 2021 hate crime dataset for Michigan reported 410 incidents as being motivated by bias regarding race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity. More than half of these incidents (280) were based on race/ethnicity/ancestry bias, with 165 incidents being “anti-Black or African American.” Forty-five of the hate incidents were handled by the Detroit Police Department, the report shows.
The bill does not explicitly criminalize the use of incorrect pronouns, despite what some media reports say. While offering increased support for the LBGTQ+ community, the word “pronoun” does not appear in the new bill, and prosecution for incorrect use of pronouns is highly unlikely, experts told Local 4 (WDIV-TV).
Where did the original law fall short?
JeDonna Dinges is one of the people pushing for changes to the existing hate crime law. Dinges lived in Grosse Pointe Park in January 2021 when she said she was targeted by a neighbor who put up a Ku Klux Klan flag in his window facing her home.
When Dinges called the police and then the FBI about the KKK flag, both told her there was nothing they could do with the law as it stood. Dinges posted the incident on social media, where it went viral.
Sen. Gary Peters discussed the incident on the House floor months later. Then, Rep. Brenda Lawrence reached out to Dinges and the Grosse Pointe Police who filed a report.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she was unable to press charges because the standard for proving a violation of the current law is difficult.
Worthy also said violation of the 1931 law only allowed for a two-year maximum sentence.
More actions, possibly including those that Dinges complained of, are prohibited under the proposed bill, which also has aggravating statutes that mirror Michigan’s sexual assault statutes — where charges become more severe if there’s bodily injury or severe mental anguish, if the offender has prior convictions, if a firearm is involved or if the victim is under 18 years old.
“I believe that there was no question that what happened to her (Dinges) was despicable, traumatizing and completely unacceptable,” Worthy said. “But again, it didn’t rise to the level … of ethnic intimidation (under the original law).”
Dinges said her goal is to ensure that every person, regardless of their background, is protected under the new law and won’t have to experience what she experienced.
“No one should have to be dealing with that,” said Dinges, who stayed in her home despite her neighbor’s actions because her mother was in hospice nearby.
She added that she “shouldn’t have to decide (if) I’m going to stay and be in danger, or am I going to be able to sit at my mother’s bedside to hold her hand.”
How did one woman get a new bill passed?
By joining up with others.
In April 2021, Dinges connected with Brigitte Maxey, a former chief of staff to former state Sen. Irma Clark-Coleman. The duo began making phone calls and sending emails to lobbyists, First Amendment experts, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Worthy, and other elected officials. It was a hush-hush operation; Dinges didn’t want the work to be undermined.
“We didn’t want it to become political because I believe it’s not political,” Dinges said.
The group met for months, drafting new hate crime bill language alongside state Rep. Noah Arbit. Dinges says 95% of the proposed bill’s language was developed as a result of the monthly meetings. The bill garnered support from community groups like the NAACP, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
Once the state house flipped to Democrat in November, Arbit pushed the bill onto the House floor.
“I’m very gratified that we now have … more tools to build charges on this kind of conduct,” said Worthy, adding that the law will hopefully deter people from committing future hate crimes in Michigan.
Worthy also said the proposed language for the bill has been vetted in every way she could think of, but a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds is a possibility.
The bill is expected to make its way to the Senate in September at the earliest, where it can face more amendments.
“We have to take those amendments and look at them as they are introduced,” Dinges said. “But as the legislation stands now, we can support it.”
“This is not legislation just to protect Black people, or just protect the LGBTQIA+ community,” Dinges said. “It’s to protect every Michigan citizen. I think that’s the really important piece.”