Capitol Alert

Rise in California homeless killings leads lawmaker to revive hate crime bill

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the intent of bills which were vetoed in 2010 and 2011. Both bills would have added homelessness to the Ralph Civil Rights Act, which includes civil penalties.

It’s dangerous to be homeless in the Golden State. Homeless people make up less 1 percent of Los Angeles’ population, yet accounted for 16 percent of the city’s homicide victims last year, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

Often, that violence is carried out with extreme brutality, according to National Coalition for the Homeless.

  • In May 2016, four people in beat a homeless man to death over the course of three days in San Francisco.
  • In September 2016, a man stabbed a homeless woman and then beat her to death with a baseball bat, all in broad daylight in Corona.
  • In February 2017, a man intentionally struck and killed a homeless man, a Navy veteran, with his vehicle in Riverside.

Those trends have lawmakers weighing whether to make a new legal protection for homeless Californians; in this case, one that would call on district attorneys to prosecute certain acts of violence against the homeless as hate crimes.

“As a body, making just laws, what are we really doing if we continue to overlook our states’ most vulnerable population,” Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, said as he introduced Assembly Bill 1422.

His bill would have made California the seventh state to list homelessness as a protected status, behind Alaska, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island and Washington.

It suffered a setback on Tuesday when an Assembly committee voted against it after expressing concerns about expanding the state’s definition of a hate crime, although lawmakers offered suggestions about what it would it take to get them to vote yes next time.

Gipson said he will “regroup with stakeholders” and then return with a modified AB 1422 next year. It’s personal to him.

“My godson is homeless and I am very concerned about his safety and well-being. Every homeless individual is a son, daughter, brother or sister to someone who cares about their safety and well-being. They are all our brothers and sisters, and they deserve the highest standard of protection under the law,” Gipson said in a statement after the committee hearing.

He had support from Brian Levin, director of the CSU San Bernadino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Levin said homeless people are much more likely to be killed in “apparent hate homicides” than people with other protected statuses.

Between 1999 and 2017, there were 476 “apparent hate homicides” of homeless people in America, compared to the 183 hate crime homicides for race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin and disability, according to FBI statistics cited by Levin.

“I challenge you to identify what group is more vulnerable than the homeless,” Gipson said.

Gipson’s bill marked the first attempt in 12 years to amend the state hate crime law to include the homeless; a 2007 bill to amend the hate crime law also died in committee.

Lawmakers also tried twice in recent years to add homelessness to the Ralph Civil Rights Act, granting them civil protection from discrimination. Both efforts passed through the Legislature only to meet the veto pens of Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 2010, and Jerry Brown, in 2011.

Schwarzenegger wrote that while the proposal was well-intentioned, “it is unclear whether the homeless are targeted for violence because they are homeless, or because they possess a characteristic already protected by the California’s hate crime statute, such as mental or physical disability.”

Brown wrote that “it is undeniable that homeless people are vulnerable to victimization, but California already has very strong civil and criminal laws that provide sufficient protection.”

The bill was opposed by district attorney and public defender groups, as well as the Anti-Defamation League. The Los Angeles City Council, by contrast, passed a resolution last fall supporting expanded hate crime protections for the homeless.

Opponents said they were sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, but that homelessness is often a transitional status and the state’s hate crime law is intended for conditions that are “immutable.” To change the law is to risk watering it down, they said.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who testified against the bill Tuesday, said that the current protected statuses make up “a tragically but painstakingly chosen list.”

Instead, Rosen suggested amending the law to create a vulnerable victim designation for the homeless, such as that already used for age and disability. That would still allow for enhanced criminal penalties.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, told Gipson that Rosen and other witnesses have given him “a vehicle” to move forward with his effort to protect the homeless, even though he “may have wanted a Porsche and gotten a Mercedes.”

Gipson disputed the idea that a hate crime requires an immutable status; he pointed to religion, which is a protected status despite being something that can change several times during a person’s life.

“They didn’t choose to be homeless. People are not simply laying on the streets just because. These individuals have nowhere to go,” Gipson said during an impassioned closing statement. “These individuals have been peed on, raped, beaten with bats, poured battery acid on, left for dead.”

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