A years-long effort to add teeth to Utah’s hate crimes law culminated in a signing ceremony by Gov. Gary Herbert Tuesday.
Prosecutors, including Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, have said the previous law was so weak, it’s never been used to successfully prosecute a hate crime.
Lawmakers from both parties applauded the signing of S.B. 103, which they say sends a message of inclusion to marginalized Utahns in minority groups.
But for Luis Lopez, who was brutally beaten with a metal bar at his family’s Salt Lake City tire shop last fall, the law came too late.
Alan Dale Covington allegedly shouted that he was there to “kill Mexicans” before attacking Lopez and his father. Covington was charged with three federal hate crimes in February, charges Salt Lake County attorneys say they were unable to bring under the state law.
Lopez, whose face is scarred from the shattered cheekbone and eye socket he suffered during the attack, says he has "mixed feelings" about the new law, which came after his family was targeted.
"It’s good to know that there’s something now that protects people, but for me in general, it's kind of hard to explain how I feel about it," Lopez said. He says since his attack, his head gets "foggy" and he suffers from PTSD.
Sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, previously said he believes the attack on Lopez and his family gave the bill momentum to make it through both chambers. Similar measures have been introduced in the legislature for several years but didn’t receive public hearings or failed to garner support.
According to FBI statistics, hate crimes increased by 17 percent nationwide between 2016 and 2017, the most recent year data was available.
Several lawmakers acknowledged the bill wouldn’t end the problem, but Gov. Herbert called it a "new beginning."
"A new opportunity for us to go out and share the message that needs to be shared with everybody. One of love, compassion, mutual respect, civility, which we sometimes don’t see in politics," he said. "We need to overcome those things and make our society better."
Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City and the legislature’s sole black member, said the new law signals "that we, as Utahns, will hold you accountable if your hateful thoughts become action."
S.B. 103 will give judges more latitude to stiffen penalties for those convicted of crimes based on identifying factors such as a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and more.
In the final week of the legislative session and over objections from Democrats and some other supporters, House Republicans added "political expression" to the list before passing the bill.