Utah & Wyoming: The Gross Misuse Of Hate Crime Laws
Written By: Anton Sawyer
I am utterly gobsmacked. It never ceases to amaze me in the very creative ways that the intent of a law can be warped beyond such perversion as to be weaponized—including it being prevented from implementation in the first place.
That’s what this article is going to look at today; how hate crime legislation in some red states is being mutated, or completely ignored. Even deeper than that, it goes to show just how the state-legislative branches have been crippling what is becoming lawful nationwide in exchange for party loyalty. Though the topic of this article is hate crimes specifically, keep in mind that there are laws in every state being manipulated like this.
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Regular readers know that I spent many years living in both Wyoming and Utah. Because of this, I will check in on what’s happening in their neck of the woods on occasion. Sadly, most of the events taking place make me depressed more than anything. But it does shine a light on how some of the most religious, red states in America see the world, and how they run. Mostly I’ve found that their acts are desperately trying to throw themselves back into the ‘80s … the 1880s. There were two major events that took place in both states in regards to their respective hate crime legislation that boggles the mind. As with everything else politically motivated, there are a lot of roots to the poisoned tree, and these roots are just as rotten as imagined.
Starting with the Beehive State, a teenage girl was recently arrested and is being charged with a hate crime because she tore up a “Back the Blue” lawn poster in front of a Sherriff’s deputy—and it looks like the charges may stick (we'll discuss the details of the case in a moment). The first place that should always be checked when something this nonsensical comes down the pipe is what the law ACTUALLY states. In a 2016 report released by then Utah Republican State Senator Stephen H. Urquhart about the hate crime legislation in Utah, he broke it down simply.
Utah has three existing hate crimes laws. The first two laws were passed in 1992. The third law was passed in 2006. It’s this 2006 law that is written in such a way as to allow interpretation to take hold and vastly increase what could reside under the umbrella of a hate crime. In § 76-3-203.4: Criminal Penalty Amendments, the law requires the sentencing judge to consider whether the offense “is likely to incite community unrest,” or likely “to cause members of the community to reasonably fear for their physical safety or to freely exercise or enjoy any right.” Although the title of the law still refers to “Hate Crimes,” it does not mention crimes motivated by bias or prejudice against groups of any kind. In 2020, there was an update to the law when it comes to the Civil Rights Violation section of the law, but it really just expanded the vagueness. It now includes the wording, “A person who commits any primary offense with the intent to intimidate or terrorize another person or with reason to believe that his action would intimidate or terrorize that person is subject up to a Class A misdemeanor.” The other portion that exacerbates the problem states, “'Intimidate or terrorize’ means an act which causes the person to fear for his physical safety or damages the property of that person or another. The act must be accompanied with the intent to cause or has the effect of causing a person to reasonably fear to freely exercise or enjoy any right secured by the Constitution or laws of the state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” Again, none of it addresses anything involving bias or prejudice against groups of any kind.
When looking at those same details and parsing through the devil’s, it’s not too surprising to see how the concept of a hate crime was turned on its ear. The full story goes like this. 19-year-old Lauren Gibson was arrested in July 2021 in Panguitch, Utah. A Garfield County Sherriff’s deputy says he was ending a traffic stop in that town when friends approached to console the persons that had been pulled over. One of those friends, later identified as Gibson, began stomping on a “Back The Blue” sign in the area where the traffic stop was conducted. According to arresting documents, the woman crumbled the sign “in a destructive manner” before throwing it in a trash can, “all while smirking in an intimidating manner” toward the deputy. It’s those last two quotes that show how under a legal sense, she could be charged with a hate crime with those updated Utah statutes. Because of this interpretation, along with the powerful blue-line brotherhood, Sheriff James Perkins released a statement, saying Gibson “purposely targeted the officer in a very unpeaceful manner.”
It is incredibly concerning to know that a trained police officer was intimidated by a young teenage girl. Unfortunately, given the current state of American policing, she’s lucky she isn’t dead. It’s chilling to the core when you begin to think that the police are able to manipulate the laws to such a degree where they can be the victim in almost any circumstance; yet are still allowed to be above the law all at the same time. This is a case I’m definitely going to keep an eye on as the ACLU has now gotten involved.
The situation in Wyoming is a little different, yet still grossly negligent. As recently as March 2021, Wyoming has no hate crime laws on the books. Why this is so important is due to the history of Wyoming as it pertains to the LGBTQ+ community.
Around the same time I was living there, national headlines were made when a young man by the name of Matthew Shepard was brutally tortured and beaten nearly to death. After being strung up for 18 hours, he had succumbed to his injuries. After an investigation, it was found that all of the suspects involved absolutely hated gay people and had already planned to murder him because of this fact (they were also going to rob his home afterward). I’m painting with broad strokes here, and it is a tragic part of LGBTQ+ history. I remember when it happened and how utterly shocking it was to me and my friends. Though there are two other states without this legislation either—Arkansas and South Carolina—it was the events that took place in Wyoming that directly caused hate crimes legislation to be enacted at a federal level a decade later. You would think that with such a permanent stain on the history of the state of Wyoming, they would want to rectify that somehow.
As I mentioned earlier, I lived in Wyoming for a few years and have a story to share that exemplifies why hate crime legislation will probably never be passed in the Cowboy State.
When I lived in Rock Springs, Wyoming, I was a teenager. I was often the (attempted) victim of bullying. What I mean is; I would be bullied, but then I would find out what behavior that bully hated and would do it mercilessly around them. I was always targeted by the cowboys and jocks. I found out they were incredibly homophobic, so I wore nail polish to school and was the only male ever enrolled in the fashion and makeup courses … in the school’s history at that time. Due to how many classes I shared with those who attempted to bully me, I would look over, see them staring daggers at me, and then watch them break their pencil when I blew them a kiss. I always thought the fact that my girlfriend was visibly pregnant would have been enough of a reality check for them, but it wasn’t. Though I did get harassed in a multitude of ways and means, looking back, I’m lucky I didn’t get killed. The only thing that ever stopped them was that all of my friends were in their early 20s. I was playing in bands/clubs at the time, so once I left school I went right to that environment and was left alone.
The homophobia was already at heightened levels before Shepard's murder, and it did certainly change some of the speaking points of Wyoming legislators, but nothing came of it. The reason why I don’t think it will ever pass has to do with the film Brokeback Mountain. Having friends still living in Wyoming at the time it was released, I got to hear of the torment the cowboys were getting. Because it was set in Wyoming, it became commonplace for people who hated that group to yell things at them like “Hey Brokeback!” when walking by. Homophobes are incredibly fragile and child-like. They aren’t comfortable with themselves and often use retaliation methods. I could be wrong, but I honestly think the lack of hate crime laws in Wyoming is because of the long memories some people have when it comes to their own torment and insecurities.
These are just two states. I am sure that if given the opportunity, the 47 states with hate crime legislation could be dissected and shown to have serious fractures. As much as I would love to be everywhere, at every time, and really examine how each state implements these laws, I can’t. That’s why I am hoping there will be a heap of you that read this who will be inspired to look at your own state. I can promise, something is always rotten somewhere.
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