Hate exists in American society. Sadly, some individuals act upon hateful urges and cause harm to innocent human beings; harm ranging from minor assault to brutal death. In an effort to curb hateful violence, Congress and many State governments have enacted statutes that increase punishment for those acts targeted at individuals because of such individual’s status. The intent of such laws, and the punishments attached, are to send a message to society that our criminal justice system does not tolerate hate.
Unfortunately, the federal government and most States do not categorize homelessness as a protected status from hate. This means that in most places in America a “homeless hater,” unprovoked, could attack a homeless person sleeping on a bench, and when being tried for the crime, the hater would be punished for the action, but not for the motive of action. Not punishing a person’s reason for acting sends the message that the act is wrong, but the motive behind the act is acceptable.
On August 9, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, three young men beat and stabbed David Ballenger, 46, to death. David had no valuable possessions to steal. David was not involved in drugs, or the associated violence. And David did not verbally or physically entice his attackers. David was simply murdered because he was homeless. In fact, a Seattle newspaper quoted one of the perpetrators boasting that there was “one less bum on the face of the earth.”
The attack began as a verbal barrage, the young men criticizing David for not being able to make a living. When David walked away, his attackers followed and began beating him. Resisting, David escaped, but the young men found him, elevated the violence, and stabbed the helpless David Ballenger to death. This senseless murder is not the only instance of inhumanity toward the homeless in Washington. In fact, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2009 there were 21 reported incidents of violence directed at homeless individuals, 12 of which resulting in death.
Over a decade after David Ballenger’s brutal murder, on January 10, 2011, Washington State Senator Scott White (D-Seattle) introduced legislation in response to the violence toward the homeless. White’s legislation seeks to include offenses that were intentionally committed because the defendant perceived the victim to be homeless to the criteria for aggravating circumstances under which an exceptional sentence above the standard range may be imposed. On March 2, 2011 the Senate passed White’s bill with a vote of 49 – 0. The bill was then sent to the House, and the following month the legislation was passed 92 – 1 (Republican Jason Overstreet was the sole dissenter; Republican members Terry Nealey, Kevin Parker, Jay Rodne, and Charles Ross, abstained from the vote) Finally on April 15, 2011, almost 12 years after the brutal murder of David Ballenger, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed White’s bill into law, making offenses committed because a victim was homeless an aggravating circumstance.
But what does this really mean once we climb past the legal jargon?
Practically, the passage of Washington S.B. 5011 (White’s bill) means that if an offense against a person was intentionally committed because that person was perceived to be homeless (the aggravating circumstance), courts will have the option to impose tougher penalties (the exceptional sentence). However, before a Judge can make a decision regarding the exceptional sentence, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance exists. S.B. 5011 did not create the concept of increased punishment for certain acts. Rather, it added homelessness to an already lengthy list of other aggravating circumstances existing in Washington State criminal law. This statute does not create homelessness as a protected category from hate, but it is a step in the right direction.
by Shane M. Poole