- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

Maryland Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said Wednesday that Montgomery County doesn't have a hate crimes problem, saying he could "count on a hand" the number of cases the county has prosecuted.

"We get very, very few if any [in the state attorney's office] and very few in the county," Mr. Gansler said.

Mr. Gansler's remarks came one day after the county executive's office told The Washington Times that it had "overstated" when it said an increase in hate crimes after September 11 fueled a 7 percent rise in overall crime.

Few hate crimes ended up in the state attorney's office last year because county police say about 40 to 50 percent of the 97 incidents they recorded consisted of noncriminal offenses, such as name-calling or scratching an offensive word into a gravel driveway.

"Whether you like it or not, these aren't crimes," Mr. Gansler said. "A lot of these are people expressing their rights to First Amendment speech."

A rise in reported bias incidents dominated a May 9 announcement of the county's year-end crime statistics and prompted Mr. Duncan, a Democrat, to say in a press release that the "significant spike in hate crimes following the September 11 attack on America boosted Montgomery County's overall crime rate."

The crime statistics, released by Montgomery County police, showed double-digit increases in the percentage of murders, robberies, auto thefts, arsons and drug offenses over year 2000 figures.

Incidents of bias rose from 55 in 2000 to 97 in 2001 but were not included in the year-end report.

Mr. Gansler says he isn't alarmed by the number or the nature of the incidents.

"You've got to look at what the hate crimes are," Mr. Gansler said. "We're concerned about any hate crimes, but there aren't people firebombing the Korean grocery store that moves into the neighborhood."

County police hate crimes coordinator David Baker said most of the criminal cases involve some form of graffiti or vandalism. Police investigate, but the cases result in few arrests "because of the clandestine nature of the crimes."

A spokesman for Mr. Duncan said Tuesday that county officials wanted to address the hate crimes before they became worse.

Mr. Gansler said he is "intolerant" of hate crimes and supports legislation to prosecute and enhance sentencing based on bias, but he said neither the number nor the type of hate crimes is alarming. The lack of prosecutions is due to an overall "tolerant and progressive view in Montgomery County," Mr. Gansler said.

The disparity between the number of hate crimes prosecuted and the number reported also could have to do with the state's definition of hate crimes.

In Maryland, two separate statutes govern the tracking of hate crimes.

The laws governing prosecution say hate crime charges may be filed against people who "harass or commit a crime upon a person or damage the real or personal property of a person because of that person's race, color, religious beliefs, or national origin."

Those laws also say the hate crime laws can be used against people who "deface, damage or destroy" religious property, and on bias-based crimes against institutions or groups.

A different statute requires police agencies to report to the federal government bias crimes that include "incidents apparently directed against an individual or group because of the individual's or the group's race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation."

Maryland does not include sexual orientation as a basis for prosecuting hate crimes, but such incidents are reported to federal authorities.

Additionally, Montgomery County police enforce the law requiring them to report crimes based on bias by also tracking incidents such as name-calling, where no property is destroyed, no one is injured and no crime is committed.

The department says it tracks the noncriminal offenses for "intelligence" purposes, allowing police to be proactive in sending conflict-resolution units into communities that show a high level of tension.

In addition to whatever charges they face for the original offense, violators of state hate crime provisions are subject to felony penalties that include up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000 if committed in conjunction with another felony. If the hate crime results in the victim's death, the violator faces 20 years in prison and a fine of $20,000.

In all other cases, hate crimes carry sentences of up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

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