‘Today is the finest’ | Georgia Legislature approves hate-crimes bill

Calling it a defining moment for the state, the General Assembly on Tuesday approved hate-crimes legislation, setting Georgia up to have a law on the books for the first time in more than a decade that extends protections to people who are targeted because of their race or sexual orientation or religion.

House Bill 426 would allow enhanced criminal penalties to be levied against those who target their victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability.

The bill now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature. After the vote, Kemp’s office said, “Governor Kemp commends the General Assembly’s bipartisan work and will sign House Bill 426 pending legal review.”

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure 47-6, followed by a House vote of 127-38. The support made state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is the longest-serving member in the House, emotional.

“I’ve been in the House a long time, I’ve been here 46 years and I’ve seen a lot,” Smyre, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said before fighting back tears. “I’ve had a lot of moments in my career, but today is the finest.”

The legislation comes at a time when the killings of Black men at the hands of White men have spurred weeks of protests across Georgia and the country calling for an end to police brutality and racial justice. Two of those high-profile deaths occurred in Georgia.

A White police officer earlier this month shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, who was Black, at an Atlanta Wendy's. Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black, died in February when he was followed by three White men in the Brunswick area and shot. Arrests have been made in both killings.

House Speaker David Ralston spent nearly two months pushing the Senate to pass the legislation after his chamber in March 2019 narrowly approved the measure, 96-67. During nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ralston said he was "more committed to a hate-crimes law than ever."

“This is a defining moment for Georgia,” the Blue Ridge Republican said after the vote. “This is a historic moment, and I am beyond proud that this House has acted in a bold, bipartisan manner so that we can all stand together. Today we have said we will not be defined by a senseless act of evil and by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, but that our Georgia is better than this.”

Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, released a statement celebrating the vote.

“My family thanks everyone for not letting my son’s death be in vain,” she said. “I know he is still with us and this law is evidence of that and I look forward to being present when it is signed.”

After first trying last week to add the police to the list of groups protected by hate-crimes legislation, Athens Republican state Sen. Bill Cowsert said Tuesday that Georgia could no longer watch the highly publicized instances of racial injustice — many on video — and not add protections for members of those groups.

“That makes it an undeniable problem and an intolerable injustice that we cannot continue to tolerate,” he said. “This law isn’t going to magically make everybody forget racial stereotypes or racial prejudices that some will continue to hold. But in this continuum of history, we’re evolving, we’re moving forward — moving forward together.”

Georgia is one of at least four states without a hate-crimes law, and powerful corporate and political leaders have pressured state leaders to act. A 2000 hate-crimes law was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”

The bill gives sentencing guidelines for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability. The passage of HB 426 also marks the first time Georgia has passed a bill that protects the LGBTQ community.

If convicted of a felony or one of five misdemeanors — simple assault, simple battery, battery, criminal trespass or misdemeanor theft — and the crime is found to be motivated by hate, a judge could impose additional penalties.

Someone proven to have committed a hate crime would face an additional six to 12 months of incarceration for a misdemeanor or at least two years for a felony. He or she would also face a fine of up to $5,000.

The bill also would mandate that law enforcement track instances of hate crimes. Supporters of hate-crimes legislation say tracking incidents is important to understand how pervasive bias-motivated offenses are in any community.

"(Data tracking is) going to tell us where the hate crimes are actually taking place, " said Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat. "Then we'll know where to put our resources. That's why that's so important. That's actually going to allow us to combat hate crimes in a scientific way."

Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Nikema Williams, who is also a state senator representing Atlanta, applauded the legislation's passage, but she decried the fact that it took so long for the General Assembly to act. The first bill after the courts threw out the old law was filed in 2006.

“We are thrilled that this law has finally passed after years of advocacy, but let’s be clear: We will not forget that this bill only came to light after 14 years of delays under Republican leadership, the murder of Black men before our eyes, and the pain of marginalized communities across our state,” Williams said.

HB 426, which was first passed by the House more than a year ago, hit a few snags along the way.

Led by Cowsert, Republicans on a Senate panel last week approved changes to HB 426 that would have added police as a protected class. At the time, Cowsert said police officers were being targeted for doing their jobs, making them afraid to bring their police cruisers home.

Democrats took issue with inserting protections for police into legislation designed to protect groups based on their inherent characteristics.

On Monday, Cowsert asked lawmakers to reverse course and remove those protections, instead putting them in a separate bill that passed 33-20 on a party-line vote.

Lawmakers were working behind the scenes up until the minutes before senators began voting on bills Tuesday to ensure bipartisan support of the legislation.

“We started this process as one of four states without a hate-crimes bill on the books, and we certainly are proud to be able to take that off of any description of our state,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said after the House approved the bill.

As a compromise, the Senate approved House Bill 838. Under HB 838, anyone found guilty of committing a crime against a first responder — defined as a firefighter, police officer or paramedic — specifically because of their occupation would face between one and five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

The bill also would allow first responders to sue anyone who files a false complaint against them.

The House later narrowly backed it 92-74, mostly along party lines. A bill must receive 91 votes in the House to become law.

"It's a serious crime and it happens all the time to law enforcement," said House Public Safety Committee Chairman Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, a former commander of the Georgia State Patrol. "A lot of our law enforcement personnel across the state are subjected to a lot of what would be criminal activity if this passes just because they do what they do.

“The pillars that uphold our society have some serious cracks in them, and I worry about what is going to transpire in the coming years.”