PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha is urging lawmakers to “clarify” the state law that allows for a sentencing enhancement if a crime is motivated by hate.
Rhode Island’s 1998 Hate Crimes Sentencing Act calls for an increase in a sentence if a judge or jury determines the underlying crime – like disorderly conduct or assault – is motivated by prejudice. But it has been difficult to apply.
Last year, Richard Gordon of Barrington was found guilty of simple assault after he used a racial epithet during an altercation with a neighbor, but a judge did not find him guilty of the hate crime violation. The court said it was unclear if Gordon’s actions were motivated purely by hate or also another reason, like a property dispute.
“If you have a mized mixed motive, does it still apply?” Neronha said on taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “We think it does, but we were just trying to clarify that in the law so that a judge won’t struggle with that issue.”
Including Gordon, Neronha has used the hate crime enhancement three times, most recently in the case of Christine Longo. The 34-year-old South Kingstown woman is accused of berating a Black family outside a popular Narragansett restaurant last June, using racially charged language.
Longo has pleaded not guilty to disorderly conduct. Her lawyer has argued Longo’s speech is protected by the First Amendment, but on Thursday a judge rejected the argument and declined to dismiss the case, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found “fighting words” aren’t afforded constitutional protection.
“They’re just words, but to that family those words really hurt,” Neronha said. “Put yourself in the shoes of that family: a Black mother and father and two daughters who just want to have a meal as a family of four like everybody else, and that’s what they were confronted with.”