By Gene Davis, DENVER DAILY NEWS
A Senate committee yesterday passed a measure that would classify a crime against a homeless person as a “hate crime.”
The Senate Finance Committee passed the measure on a party line 4-3 vote. The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Bill sponsor Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said earlier this week that there are “heinous crimes” being committed against homeless people. She argued that homeless people are a vulnerable part of the population, suffer acts of discrimination and should be protected under hate-crime law.
“The idea that they are out there on our streets and being discriminated against in this heinous way is something that we feel that the state should speak to through this kind of bill,” she said. “We feel it will help people understand that this is, in a sense, a moral issue and that we as the state need to respond.”
But the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, Colorado District Attorney’s Council and Denver Post have opposed the measure. The groups argued that being homeless isn’t an innate characteristic like race, mental disability or religion, and that the definition of homeless is vague enough that a “couch surfer” could potentially qualify as a homeless person. Opponents also said they were concerned with whether a homeless person would be charged with a hate crime if they assaulted another homeless person.
“We are also concerned that opening up hate-crime laws to include a new class of victims who are susceptible to crime, rather than the target of systematic societal prejudice, will set a precedent that threatens to dilute the power, intent and meaning of original hate-crime legislation,” wrote the Denver Post in an editorial.
However, University of Colorado at Boulder Professor Dr. Thaddeus Tecza said that being homeless becomes part of an identity when a criminal chooses to target someone because they are homeless. He added that religion is also not an “innate characteristic,” and that homelessness is better defined in federal law than race or sexual preference.
“Passing this bill would send a strong message to the bigots who regularly target homeless people that the state of Colorado takes this form of bigotry as serious as any other,” he said. “In doing so, it can have a meaningful deterrent impact.”
The national branch of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is helping lead the push to include homeless people as a protected group under hate-crime laws. Bette Iacino of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless said there have been more than 1,000 crimes of prejudice committed against homeless people across the country over the past 10 years.
She mentioned cases where homeless people had been raped, kicked, set on fire and decapitated; Colorado ranked fifth in the nation during the past 10 years for the number of crimes committed against the homeless, she said.
“In light of these disturbing social influences, we’re confident this bill will foster an improved climate of respect among the housed and homeless,” she said.
Homeless man Vernon Lewis said he narrowly escaped being beaten up by a group of guys. He was “camping” when he heard the group of men approaching to assault him, but managed to get away in time, he said.
“It seems like hunting season for the homeless is a year-round event,” he said.
If Colorado included homeless people in its hate crime law, it would allow the state to charge suspects with a hate crime in addition to the original charge. A judge could then convict a defendant on the two different charges or combine them for one stiffer penalty.