AUGUSTA, Maine — A black man tells police that a white man knocked him to the ground and said president-elect Donald Trump would deport him.
Three city council members learn of the alleged assault and take to social media to declare it a “hate crime.”
The accused attacker did not hurl any racial epithets at the man, threaten that the new president would send him and all other African-Americans back to Africa or display a weapon. So, under Maine law, it will not be classified as a “hate crime,” according to the Maine attorney general’s office.
What constitutes a hate crime in Maine appears to be relatively simple — it’s a crime that manifests evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, mental or physical disability.
Yet, determining how an incident actually is classified a hate crime is more complicated and deciding whether to seek a permanent restraining order against an alleged perpetrator is even more complex, according to the state attorney general’s office.
“Just because a white man assaults a black man does not mean it was motivated by racial bias,” said Leanne Robbin, the assistant attorney general who handles civil rights cases. “Most times, it’s a dispute about someone or something else.
“We don’t know what is going through a perpetrator’s head,” she continued. “But if they are yelling epithets, they are basically saying, ‘I don’t like you because of who you are,’ then, that is the easiest way to prove it is a hate crime.”
For Robbin’s office to seek an injunction there must be: physical force or violence against a person; the threat of physical force or violence against a person; damage or destruction to property; or, trespass on property which was motivated by bias.
The Civil Rights Act, passed in 1989, allows the attorney general’s office to seek a permanent restraining order against a person or persons who usually, but not always, have been charged with a crime motivated by bias. Those charges often involve assault, harassment or criminal mischief.
Once a restraining order has been granted under the Civil Rights Act, an individual who violates the order and has contact with the victim or victims can be charged with a Class D crime and be jailed up to a year and fined up to $2,000 if convicted.
Since the law was enacted, 300 restraining orders have been issued and just 10 violations have been reported, according to Robbin.
“That, I think, shows that it is a very effective tool,” she said.
Last year, her office filed six cases against seven defendants out of 72 referrals. In 2014, it filed five cases against six defendants. The highest number of documented hate crimes was recorded in 2010 when 10 injunctions were issued. On average, between 70 and 75 cases annually are referred to the attorney general’s office.
So far this year, Robbin’s office has pursued nine cases against 10 individuals out of the 85 incidents referred to her office. Those incidents occurred between June 1 and Sept. 7 and all but one included racial slurs and threats of physical harm to the victims. The ninth case involved a Gardiner man who knocked down one cross and broke another erected by abortion protesters in a vacant lot across from Augusta Family Planning.
“Because of the time frame, I suspect that some of these incidents were a result of presidential campaign rhetoric,” Robbin said. “No conduct committed since the election has been found to be actionable.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, documented 867 bias-related incidents in the 10 days following the presidential election. Eight of those incidents were in Maine, the report said.
The incidents were compiled from media reports and reports posted on the center’s website. Specifics about the incidents reported from Maine were not included in the report.
The number of injunctions granted as a result of investigations by the attorney general’s office does not equate to the FBI hate crimes statistics compiled in its Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The FBI defines hate crimes as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”
The FBI gathers statistics on the number of reported crimes. After investigation, however, not all reports result in charges being filed. For example, graffiti that includes swastikas spray painted on a synagogue might be reported as a hate crime but might not be prosecuted once the perpetrators have been interviewed and their intent is found not to be hate based.
The attorney general’s office takes action only after an investigation is completed, not when a report is made, which is how the FBI compiles its statistics. The attorney general’s office also requires a threat of violence or property destruction, or actual violence or destruction of property before it considers a reported incident a hate crime.
According to the FBI’s state-by-state breakdown, Maine had 45 hate crimes in 2015, including two aggravated assaults, three simple assaults, 29 reports of intimidation and 11 acts of vandalism.
The FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics report, which was released Nov. 14, shows a 6.5 percent increase in the number of hate crimes in the U.S., which totalled 5,818 for 2015, compared to 2014. The new FBI data also shows a 67 percent jump in crimes against Muslims, increasing from 154 in 2014 to 257 in 2015. But crimes against Jewish people, with 664 incidents reported out of the 1,244 total, still top the list of religious-related hate crimes.
About 60 percent of the hate crime victims in the U.S. were targeted based on race, another 20 percent involved religion, and 17.7 percent were victimized because of the offenders’ sexual-orientation bias, according to the FBI data.
While 18 murders and 13 rapes in the U.S. were on the list, intimidation accounted for 41.3 percent of the hate crimes in 2015, simple assault made up 37.8 percent, and aggravated assault came in at 19.7 percent. Around one-third of hate crimes happened near homes, 17 percent occurred on roadways, 8.3 percent occurred at schools, 5.6 percent happened in parking lots, and 4.4 percent took place in homes of worship.
Attorney General Janet Mills recently encouraged people who feel they are victims of a possible hate crime to call police.
“No one should be the target of threats of violence because of who they are,” she said. “Anyone who has been the target or victim of such threats should immediately call 911 and make a report to their local law enforcement agency. This office will not tolerate such behavior and will work to ensure that all Mainers are equally protected under the law and are free to enjoy their constitutional rights in peace.”
BDN writer Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this report.