Justice Dept, FBI looking for motive in post-election incidents

There was galling news from the FBI this week: 2015 saw a shocking 67-percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims. Meanwhile, following the election on Nov. 8, civil rights groups have reported a number of incidents ranging from harassment to attacks against Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities as well as against Trump supporters.

"Many Americans are concerned by a spate of recent news reports about alleged hate crimes and harassment," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Friday.

Lynch issued a videotaped statement to address these concerns. She called the FBI report, which only included confirmed cases of anti-Muslim hate crimes, "deeply sobering." As for the post-election incidents, she announced that the FBI and federal prosecutors are launching a probe into whether any meet the criteria to be charged as federal hate crimes.

A federal hate crime prosecution, naturally enough, can only involve violations of federal law. As you may know, however, Louisiana and many other states have hate crime statutes much like the federal one. In general, these statutes provide a harsher penalty when crimes are motivated by bias based on race, color, national origin, religion, disability, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

To obtain the heavier sentence, the prosecution must not only prove every element of the crime itself, but also demonstrate the defendant was motivated by bias based on one of those characteristics. Under the federal hate crime acts statute, judges are allowed broad leeway to hand down life sentences in kidnapping, sexual abuse and attempted murder cases or when someone was killed during the crime.

Building a case for a hate crime takes a lot of time and legwork because the defendant's motive for committing the offense must be proven to the jury's satisfaction. It seems that, as least for now, the federal government is prepared to bring all its resources to bear.

Attorney General Lynch's authority to order the probe officially runs out on Jan. 19, at which time the future attorney general will have to decide whether to continue it. President-elect Trump has named Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as his choice for the role, but Mr. Sessions will have to be confirmed by the Senate.

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