With a signature, Ga. no longer 1 of 4 states without hate-crimes law

Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law House Bill 426, hate-crimes legislation, on the last day of the legislative session Friday at the Georgia Capitol. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law House Bill 426, hate-crimes legislation, on the last day of the legislative session Friday at the Georgia Capitol. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

As of Wednesday, Georgia will no longer be on the short list of states that have no hate-crimes law on the books.

Flanked by a bipartisan collection of lawmakers, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the measure that strengthens penalties for those who are convicted of crimes committed against people based on characteristics such as race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Kemp thanked lawmakers who were spurred to act after a video went viral in May that showed the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who had been followed by three white men in Glynn County.

“Today we stand together as Republicans and Democrats, Black and white, male and female, from rural, urban and suburban communities to affirm a simple but powerful model — Georgia is a state too great to hate,” he said. “It’s a sign of progress, and it’s a milestone worth applauding. Frankly, it’s the silver lining in these difficult times and stormy days.”

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The event wasn’t without controversy. Protesters stood around the Capitol steps during the ceremony with signs urging Kemp to veto legislation the General Assembly passed the same day as the hate-crimes bill that would extend similar protections to law enforcement.

And markedly absent from the event was Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who declined to attend due to the police-protection legislation.

“To see the Legislature prioritize (police protections) instead of repealing citizen’s arrest is heartbreaking and does not do justice for my son,” Cooper-Jones said, referring to another priority of the Georgia NAACP and other advocacy groups who pushed for hate-crimes legislation.

House Speaker David Ralston, who began publicly pushing for the Senate to pass House Bill 426 after the video of Arbery's killing was made public, noted Cooper-Jones' absence.

“Nothing we could say will alleviate the suffering of his mother, Ms. Wanda Cooper-Jones,” Ralston said. “But we can send the message that Georgia is better than what we saw on that awful, sickening, disgusting video.”

Georgia has been one of four states without a hate-crimes law. A 2000 hate-crimes law was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”

HB 426's sponsor, House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Chuck Efstration, said passing the legislation fixed a hole the state has had in its law since 2004.

“Offenses that are based upon bigotry, racism and hate can be called that under the law and punishments can be given appropriately,” the Dacula Republican said.

The new law 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 convicted of committing 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 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.

The journey from when the House passed HB 426 in March 2019 to the Legislature approving the measure was a long one.

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, paramedic or police officer — specifically because of his or her occupation would face between one and five years in prison and a fine up to $5,000.

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

Passage of police protections kept the Georgia NAACP away from Friday’s ceremony, with the group releasing a statement saying it furthered “toxic divide” in the community.

“This compromise in the political process will forever ring throughout history as a signal that Black lives are a bargaining chip toward a political end and dead, Black bodies are an expendable commodity in the halls of legislative power,” Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said.

Acknowledging their disappointment with HB 838, Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to focus on the historic nature of the day.

"I am filled with joy and fulfillment," said Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly and a co-sponsor of HB 426. "On this day, we stand before you as proud Georgians. And I am one that has seen a lot of legislative initiatives in my 46 years. The Ahmaud Arbery death will not be in vain."

The 2020 General Assembly session

Georgia’s prolonged lawmaking session finally ended Friday after a three-month pause because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While a hate-crimes law and budget cuts received the most attention, lawmakers also took on dozens of other measures.

Bills that passed head to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto. Those that failed will have to wait until next year.

Here’s a look at what passed and failed on the last day:

Gambling: A push to expand gambling beyond the Georgia Lottery appeared to have fallen short Friday evening. Legislative leaders declined to hold votes on bills that would have allowed a referendum on whether the state should allow casinos, horse racing and sports betting. A separate measure would have permitted mobile sports betting, but that bill also stalled.

Vaping: Lawmakers raised the legal age to buy tobacco and vaping products to 21 while also imposing a 7% tax on the purchase of vaping products. The legislation encountered opposition from those who wanted to raise taxes on cigarettes from 37 cents per pack, one of the lowest rates in the nation.

Breast milk: Employers would have to give their employees breaks to pump breast milk in a place other than a restroom, according to a bill that cleared the General Assembly.

Transit: The board that oversees transit planning and funding in the 13-county metro Atlanta area would see some changes under a bill approved Friday. The measure addresses ambiguity about election procedures for the board's members, 10 of whom are elected by district by state legislators and local elected officials.

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