Hate Crimes Bill May Gain Traction In Wake Of Olathe Shootings

Mar 9, 2017

For years Kansas Sen. David Haley has introduced bills to stiffen penalties for hate crimes and they’ve gone nowhere.

But Haley and others think his bill might have more urgency this year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on Senate Bill 128 Wednesday, just weeks after a man opened fire on two Indian immigrants in an Olathe bar, wounding one and killing the other.

The alleged shooter, Adam Purinton, reportedly asked them about their immigration status and yelled “get out of my country” before the shootings. A white bar patron who tried to intervene also was shot and injured.

The incident has rocked Kansas City’s Indian-American community and made international news.

Haley said the Olathe shootings and other recent incidents, like the shooting of a Sikh man near Seattle and the desecration of graves in Jewish cemeteries, should influence his colleagues to consider clamping down on crimes motivated by bias.

“I would hope that it does,” said Haley, a Kansas City Democrat. “I would hope that, regrettably, the tragedies that are occurring, in a whole and hopefully more perfect society … would give a better shot for this bill to be adopted.”

The FBI is investigating the Olathe shootings as a possible hate crime and federal charges could be filed.

But Haley said the state should not rely on federal intervention, because most bias-related crimes are lower-level offenses like assault or vandalism that are less likely to draw federal attention.

Under current Kansas law, judges and juries may consider crimes motivated by bias as an “aggravating factor” when deciding on a sentence.

But Haley’s bill would automatically double the usual penalties for crimes if a judge or jury determines they were motivated by prejudice against a person’s race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation. Haley said he also is open to adding gender identity to the list.

There was little opposition to the concept of the bill at a hearing Wednesday. But several groups, including the ACLU, say it needs to be rewritten to protect free speech rights.

Alvin Sykes, a longtime civil rights advocate from Kansas City, testified for the bill.

He said the prejudice-related crimes it addresses go back a long time. But the Olathe shooting puts another human face on it for legislators.

“It’s a fresh reminder of what hate looks like,” Sykes said. “Discrimination is still a powerful weapon that has to be challenged.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.