When Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced charges this week against four men allegedly involved in the shooting of five Black Lives Matter protesters, none of the counts involved hate crimes.
Freeman said charging a hate crime would have no effect. Minnesota imposes stiffer penalties for misdemeanor crimes motivated by hate — but there are no added punishments for felony crimes rooted in bias.
"It would not add one iota of time to these people if we also charged a hate crime," he said. "Having said that, it certainly has components of that. Some may call it hate. Some may call it racist. I call it offensive."
Under state law, assaulting someone because of the victim's race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, or national origin carries a maximum sentence of one year. The men charged with attacking the Black Lives Matter protestors face maximum prison sentences of five to seven years because they're accused of felonies.
Lesser penalties kept Anoka County prosecutors from filing hate crime counts against a restaurant patron accused of assaulting another customer for speaking Swahili.
But a prosecutor can argue for stiffer sentences than guidelines recommend for criminal charges, said Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo.
"I can say, 'Judge, this crime is even more heinous because it was motivated by race or bias,'" Palumbo added.
Even so, Steven Belton, interim president of the Minneapolis Urban League, said state law is too weak and lawmakers should require extra punishment when racial or other bias is evident.
"There should be punishment not only on an elevated level but it ought to be cumulative, add additional penalties because it is based on hate," he said.
Tougher penalties could be on the way.
State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, plans to introduce a bill that would increase maximum sentences by 25 percent when a felony assault is committed because of bias. He says hate crimes cause harm beyond the person targeted for their race, religion or something else.
"Everyone in that class is in a sense the target or victim of the crime and everyone who cares about people not being targeted because of their race or other hate-related motivations is also victimized," said Latz, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Forty-five states have laws that punish crimes inspired by racial or some other bias. But who is protected and how broadly the laws punish perpetrators varies.
"Minnesota only covers crimes of lesser magnitude," said Michael Lieberman, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Civil Rights Policy Planning Center. "Many other states also cover felonies."
Some 5,500 hate crimes were reported by the FBI last year. But while there are federal hate crime statutes, the vast majority of hate crimes are investigated and prosecuted by state and local governments and the feds pursue only a fraction of those, typically the higher-profile cases, Lieberman said.
Freeman said he's talking with U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger about prosecuting the Black Lives Matter shootings in federal court. The case will go to whichever jurisdiction can impose the longest sentences, he added.
Lieberman said the best hate crime laws cover a broad array of criminal activities and protect a great range of possible victims, based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, national origin and other characteristics. California, Illinois and Connecticut are among the best at doing that, he said.
But the extent of hate crime is unclear. There were 98 bias crimes in Minnesota reported to the FBI last year, but reporting is voluntary and the large majority of jurisdictions reported none. Some state and local governments don't bother to report hate crimes and Lieberman says some report questionable counts.
"Over 100 of the largest cities in America over 100,000 in population reported zero hate crimes in 2014," he said, adding, "or they ignored the request for data from the FBI altogether."
Lieberman said it is important that crimes rooted in hate be branded as such in state courts.
"It does seem like there's gap in the law when you're in a position to charge a serious crime but not be able to call it a hate crime, not to be able to go to the actual motivation for the crime," he added.