The New York State Assembly today passed legislation (A.9292–A), introduced by Assemblymember William Colton (D-Bensonhurst) that would increase the penalties for those who use swastikas or burning crosses to intimidate or threaten the lives of others. The bill now needs Senate approval and the Governor's signature to be enacted.
"Today the Assembly has sent a clear message that swastikas and burning crosses are symbols of such extraordinary hate and fear that they should be treated more seriously than with just a misdemeanor," said Assemblymember Colton. "Treating these hate crimes as a misdemeanor is an insult to the victims," he added.
During the last few years, there have been a growing number of reports citing slashed tires, robbed and desecrated religious establishments, and murals of swastikas enveloping New York City. These were some of the many incidents that prompted the lawmaker to call for this historic hate crime legislation. "Swastika scrawling, burning crosses, and all other types of hate vandalism are methods of breaking down and frightening a community," said Colton.
The Bensonhurst/Gravesend legislator met with local religious and community leaders immediately following a rash of hate incidents in and around his district which generated a consensus that with proper education must come strong law enforcement to deal with despicable acts of hate. "This bill, if passed in the Senate and then signed by the Governor, will now put teeth in our law that will give law enforcement the tools necessary to deal with acts of pure hatred," asserted Colton.
Some questions of the bill's constitutional implications were addressed in a landmark Supreme Court case just last year. With the United States Supreme Court's decision in Virginia V. Black (2003), the court held that the state of Virginia held a constitutional right to make cross burnings a felony as long as intent to intimidate can be proven. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated in the opinion of the court: "The First Amendment permits Virginia to outlaw cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate because burning a cross is a particularly virulent form of intimidation...Virginia may choose to regulate this subset of intimidating messages in light of cross burning's long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence."
If approved by the Senate and the Governor, New York would join California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia in offering similar hate crime legislation.