Legislators wrestled Wednesday afternoon with the idea of adding cops and law enforcement to the list of protected classes under state hate crime laws.
State House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, is carrying the bill as part of a “tough on crime” package endorsed by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and the House Republican leadership.
One GOP lawmaker expressed his skepticism of the idea in a hearing of Gentry’s bill at the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.
“I believe we’ve got laws already on the books that should take care of this,” state Rep. Rick Little, R-Chaparral, told Gentry at the hearing. “A lot of these things go on the judge’s discretion anyway.”
The committee didn’t vote on whether to endorse the bill or not.
Gentry’s bill would add additional penalties to people who target and commit violent crimes against law enforcement officers. The Hate Crimes Act says it must be proven that the felony is “motivated by hate.” A first offense would add one year in prison onto whatever other charges the crime also results in. A second offense would add two years to the sentence.
The bill comes in the wake of the high profile killings of two police officers this year. Rio Rancho police officer Greg Banner was killed after a traffic stop in May, while Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster was killed by someone he was trying to arrest in October.
State Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, wondered how the bill would address these deaths.
“Using the tragedy of Officer Webster as an example, how do you determine that that was animated by existing hate?” O’Neill asked. “How would you determine the motivation under your bill?”
Gentry responded that it would be up to the prosecutors in the case.
“In the case of some of the more recent police shootings, the defense would argue [the shooting] wasn’t because he’s a police officer, [the killer] was trying to run away,” he said. “So I think it’s something the prosecutors would have to convince the jury.”
O’Neill also drew a line between making hate crimes against, for example, homeless people who are vulnerable because they’re unarmed and on the streets and cops who carry guns and wear bulletproof vests.
Gentry responded by offering a hypothetical example of a cop pulling someone over for speeding and not anticipating that that person then shoots them six times.
“Some people just don’t want to be caught,” Gentry said.
O’Neill has introduced legislation to add homeless people to the list of protected classes. The legislation passed the Senate last year, but failed to get through the committee process in the House.
State Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Patricia Roybal Caballero, both Democrats from Albuquerque, emphasized that hate crimes were historically created as civil rights protections for classes that are discriminated against. Roybal Caballero added that anytime she’s “a citizen up against someone in a uniform,” she would be “more vulnerable because I’m not in a uniform.”