Hate Crimes

18 U.S.C. § 249 - Federal Hate Crimes

Many states have hate crime laws; most cases are prosecuted in a state-level courthouse. Sometimes, however, it's a federal crime to cause someone bodily injury or attempt to do so because of their race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

The federal hate crime laws are defined under 18 U.S.C. 249, and depending on case details and injuries, a convicted defendant could receive a life sentence in federal prison.

18 U.S. Code § 249 - Federal Hate Crimes
A federal hate crime means targeting someone due to their race, color, religion, gender, etc.

Suppose federal prosecutors determine a crime was committed against somebody due to specific victim characteristics. In that case, the alleged perpetrator might be eligible for harsh enhanced penalties under state or federal hate crime laws. Federal hate crime laws outline sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

18 U.S.C. 249 says, (link) “(1) Offenses involving actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin. Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person—

(A) shall be imprisoned not more than ten years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and (B) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if—

(i) death results from the offense; or

(ii) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.”

Hate crime laws are considered civil rights violations. 18 U.S. Code 1512 defines tampering with a witness, victim, or informant. If convicted, you face severe penalties. Let's review this federal law in more detail below.

Review of 18 U.S.C. 249

This law is known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.

Congress passed Title 18 U.S.C. 249 to strengthen the law to give federal prosecutors tools to pursue alleged hate crime offenders aggressively. It covers specific scenarios that might not be defined under state hate crime laws.

For example, 18 U.S.C. 249 makes it a felony federal offense to commit the following actions that fall under the umbrella of a hate crime:

  • Willfully cause another person a bodily injury; or
  • Attempt to cause them a bodily injury using fire, firearm, explosives, or other dangerous weapons.

Who are the People Protected Under Hate Crimes Laws?

18 U.S.C. 249 says it's a felony offense to commit either of the acts listed above against someone based on their actual or perceived association with the following:

  • Specific race, color, religion, or national origin;
  • Religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification,  
  • Disability when the conduct crosses state lines or impacts interstate or foreign commerce.

Actual or Perceived – Explained 

A crucial element of the crime in this law is the term "actual or perceived" race, religion, etc. This critical factor is essential because it expands the definition of a hate crime to protect victims perceived to have a protected characteristic, even if the perpetrator is mistaken.

For example, suppose you deliberately cause an injury to somebody because they are Jewish, but they are not a Jew. In that case, you could still be found guilty under federal hate crime laws.

What Are the Related Federal Statutes?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 13 has several federal statutes that are related to 18 U.S.C. 249 hate crime law and civil rights violations, including the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 241 defines conspiracy to injure, suppress, threaten, or intimidate anyone into being unable to exercise their constitutional rights;
  • 18 U.S.C. 242 defines conduct that makes it unlawful to deprive somebody of their rights under the color of law;
  • 18 U.S.C. 243 prohibits excluding anybody from serving on the jury because of their race or color;
  • 18 U.S.C. 244 prohibits those in public places from discriminating against people wearing a military uniform;
  • 18 U.S.C. 245 prohibits interfering with somebody's lawful right to vote, get benefits, apply for employment, or participate in federal programs;
  • 18 U.S.C. 246 prohibits depriving people of their employment, position, work, or other benefits;
  • 18 U.S.C. 247 prohibits criminal conduct related to destroying religious property because it is religious;
  • 18 U.S.C. 248 prohibits blocking access to reproductive health services by threats or force or causing injury or damaging clinic property;
  • 18 U.S.C. 250 outlines the penalties for civil rights offenses involving sexual misconduct.

What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 249?

The penalties will always depend on the case details but are often harsh. Suppose you are convicted of a federal hate crime. In that case, you could be facing the following penalties:

  • Up to 10 years in federal prison;
  • A fine of up to $250,000.

Notably, the maximum sentence for a hate crime can be enhanced to life imprisonment, such as the following conditions:

  • Kidnapping or attempted kidnapping;
  • Aggravated sexual assault or an attempt;
  • Attempted murder;
  • Someone's death as a result of the hate crime;

What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 249?

Suppose you were charged with a hate crime under federal law. In that case, a federal criminal defense lawyer could use several strategies to obtain the best possible outcome.

Defenses for Federal Hate Crimes
Contact our federal defense lawyers for help.

Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor to remove the hate crime element from the charges. Perhaps we can argue to change the venue from a federal court to a state-level courthouse.

Maybe you can argue that you didn't willfully injure or attempt to injure the victim, such as saying the injury was an accident. Maybe we can argue that you didn't participate in a hate crime. For example, suppose you were only present or part of a group that committed the hate crime.

Maybe we can argue that you did not target the alleged victim due to a protected characteristic. For example, you may have committed an assault, but it was not based on race, religion, or other protected attributes. Suppose your guilt of a hate crime is not in doubt. In that case, perhaps we can negotiate a favorable plea bargain.

We provide legal representation throughout the United States on federal criminal issues. We offer a free case evaluation via phone or contact form. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, CA.

Related Content: 

Contact Us Today

Hedding Law Firm is committed to answering your questions about Federal Criminal Defense issues in Los Angeles and Encino California. We'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.