Bill aims to protect homeless from hate crimes

General Assembly

February 11, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,[Sun reporter]

It is a rare issue that fosters agreement between Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a conservative Frederick Republican.

But the homeless, often anonymous victims of street violence, are bringing them together - even as some lawmakers question the sincerity of Mooney's motivation in proposing to expand the state's hate crimes law to protect them.

"I think they're targeted because they're vulnerable, and they're abused," said Mooney, the bill sponsor. "There's nobody to speak for them."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's Maryland section incorrectly reported the number of Democrats who have co-sponsored a Senate bill designed to protect the homeless from hate crimes. Four Democrats, Sens. Jamie Raskin, C. Anthony Muse, Douglas J.J. Peters, Jr. and Norman R. Stone Jr., have co-sponsored the bill.
The Sun regrets the error.

Maryland is one of five states - including Massachusetts, Florida, California and soon Texas - to consider similar bills this year. If Mooney's measure is approved, it could be the first of its kind in the nation.

Advocates say the latest state initiatives reflect a nationwide increase in violent crimes against the homeless. They point to a savage beating of three homeless men caught on tape in Florida last year and replayed on national television. One victim died.

"It was as powerful as the old Rodney King video of a decade or so ago," said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington nonprofit group that tracks such crimes.

Last year, The Sun reported that three teenagers were arrested and charged with assaulting three Baltimore homeless men. One victim was sleeping when he was approached. The others, one of whom was in a wheelchair, were beaten and kicked, and one suffered "massive head injuries and a dislocated eye."

The Maryland Senate narrowly defeated Mooney's proposal last year. Some legislators who had supported the original state hate crimes statute voted against it because they believed that Mooney was trying to dilute the law, not protect the homeless. Mooney opposed expansion of the statute to protect gays and lesbians two years ago and has said that he does not think a hate crimes statute is necessary.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who voted against the bill last year, called his effort "disingenuous."

"His strategy is to put short people, heavy people, blond people" in the bill, said Pinsky, who vowed to vote against Mooney's proposal again if it reaches the floor. "What he's doing is to trivialize hate crimes against gay people."

Frosh, an attorney and chairman of the Senate committee that heard testimony about Mooney's bill last week, said he is supportive. Frosh said he believes that a lawyer could demonstrate in court that "people commit crimes against other people because they're homeless, because they're perceived to be bums."

"I don't really care about his motives. If he's right, he's right," Frosh said of Mooney.

Mooney said all crimes should be treated equally under the law. But because the state approved the hate crimes statute in 1988 and expanded it in 2005 to protect people who are targeted based on their sexual orientation, he said other potentially marginalized groups should be covered.

"You can make the case that the mentally ill should be included or the elderly," he said.

Another source of concern about the problem at the national level is the growing popularity of a video series called Bumfights, in which homeless people are paid to punch each other and perform often dangerous and degrading stunts. The films, which sell online, were profiled - as was the problem of violence against the homeless - last fall on CBS' 60 Minutes.

Though the federal government does not track crimes against the homeless, and statistics are generally difficult for local officials to collect, given the transient lifestyle of the victims, Stoops said that his group has collated information from news reports and police interviews.

Nationally, the homeless have been victims of 472 assaults, 169 of them homicides, between 1999 and 2005, according to the coalition Web site. Stoops said the 2006 statistics will show a steep increase.

Mooney's bill, referred to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week, would add the homeless to a statute that protects people who are victims of crimes because of their race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or national origin. It also prohibits the defacement or destruction, burning or attempted burning of a person's property.

For a violation that does not include a separate felony, a person could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and would be subject to imprisonment for up to three years and a fine of $5,000. If an individual commits a related felony, the punishment could carry up to a 10-year jail sentence and a fine of up to $10,000. If an act results in the death of a victim, a person could be sentenced to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

Montgomery County Sen. Jamie Raskin, the lone Democratic co-sponsor of the bill, said the proposal brings attention to a growing problem.

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