Burning a Trump sign is not a hate crime

To be clear, we condemn vandalism, arson and destruction of property in general, and particularly when those acts are aimed at curtailing someone's right to free speech. The burning of a pro-Donald Trump sign in Princess Anne (along with the evident collateral damage to a Kathy Szeliga sign and a Glock advertisement), allegedly by two young women from the Baltimore area, was wrong by any measure, and police are right to pursue the case.

What we question, though, is the attempt to charge the two women, Joy M. Shuford, 19, of Owings Mills, and D'Asia R. Perry, 19, of Halethorpe, with a hate crime. Even if we assume all the details of the case laid out in the charging documents are true, they simply don't meet the terms of Maryland's law. Equating an act of political vandalism with violence against a person because of his or her race, ethnicity, religion or other protected characteristic cheapens the very idea of a hate crime.

Princess Anne police say the two women were driving along the road when they saw a large Trump sign outside Wink's Sporting Goods. According to the charging documents, Ms. Shuford later told police that the pair joked about tearing the sign down, and they stopped and attempted to do so. It was too securely attached, so Ms. Shuford got a lighter from the car and attempted to set it on fire, the documents say.

The charges include several straightforward counts of arson, trespassing and destruction of property. But they also state that the "intentional burning of these political signs, along with the beliefs, religious views and race of this political affiliation, directly coincides with that of the victim" and an allegation that the defendants "did burn an object on the personal property of Robert Wink because of said victim's race and religious beliefs based on the victim's political values." An official in the fire marshal's office explained the charge to The Sun's Jessica Anderson as demonstrating "discrimination or malice toward a particular group, or someone's belief."

What Maryland's hate crime statute prohibits is violence, harassment or destruction of property "because of another's race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or national origin, or because another is homeless." Political beliefs don't make the list. The only way to make any sense of this charge is to assume that anyone who is a minority (as both Ms. Shuford and Ms. Perry are) who dislikes President Trump must then automatically hate white people and Christians. Put another way, the Princess Anne police evidently think that to be a Trump supporter is synonymous with being white and Christian.

The Maryland State Police compiles an annual report on alleged hate crime incidents in the state, and the most recent edition (which covers 2015) notes the difficulty in determining what is and what isn't a hate crime because it requires an understanding of the motivations of the perpetrator. The report lists various factors that help investigators classify such crimes, including the victim's perceptions but also the "perpetrator's comments, gestures, or written statements [reflecting] bias — including graffiti, drawings and symbols used." Police list no evidence that either woman made any statements or gestures or used any symbols related to race, ethnicity, religion or anything else mentioned in the hate crime statute.

The alleged crime does fit a pattern of similar incidents — this particular sign has been vandalized in the past, and Somerset County Republicans say attempts to steal or burn Trump signs have been common. But political sign sabotage happens with virtually every candidate and every election. It isn't right, but it isn't a hate crime, either.

If Somerset County State's Attorney Daniel W. Powell doesn't drop the hate crimes charges, we expect a judge will. But the real issue here is a lack of understanding of what hate crimes actually are and the rationale for passing laws that enhance penalties for them.

It's not a hate crime when a person of a particular race or ethnicity commits a crime against someone who is different. It's a hate crime when a perpetrator not only harms the individual victim but does so in a way that terrorizes an entire protected class of people. It can be a white-on-black crime, as in the case of the Hampden man who allegedly drove to New York with the intent to kill black people, or it can be black on white, as in the case of the California man who allegedly shot and killed three white men on the street in Fresno and expressed hatred toward white people before he was arrested. And certainly, it can coincide with hatred of the president, as in the case of four young African-American people in Chicago who are charged with hate crimes in the savage videotaped beating of a white, mentally disabled young man during which they yelled anti-Trump and anti-white slurs.

But expressing support for Donald Trump does not make you a member of a protected class, nor does opposing him make you an anti-white, anti-Christian bigot. There have been plenty of real hate crimes committed since the election that have given people reason to fear for their safety based on their race, ethnicity or religion. This wasn't one of them.

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