TALLAHASSEE — This week it will become a hate crime to attack a homeless person with prejudice in Florida, meaning a crime like the fatal bludgeoning of a Vietnam veteran last year will come with steeper consequences.
Florida, which has led the nation in these attacks four of the last five years, will be largest of five states and the District of Columbia to pass such a law.
But a leading advocacy group says it is unsure whether the laws will do any good.
The National Coalition for the Homeless doesn’t oppose the laws: It even presented an award to a Maryland lawmaker who sponsored a law there. But the organization first wants the federal government to begin collecting data to help determine what will work. A U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee is scheduled to hear testimony on that issue Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
“It’s premature to start solving the problem until you know what the extent of it is,” said Neil Donovan, the coalition’s executive director. “If we’re not sure where and how the problem has arisen and how broad it is, it’s hard to start to address it.”
Other advocates say there’s no need to wait because publicity surrounding hate crime laws can be a deterrent itself.
“They’re important to make statements that homeless people are not second-class citizens and that violence against them, brutal violence against them, will not be tolerated,” said Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights director for the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty.
The slaying of the homeless veteran, Daniel Case, on Florida’s west coast is an example of that brutality. Two street gang members were charged with wielding a baseball bat and golf club to beat him while he slept in a lawn chair behind a Bradenton business.
One suspect in Case’s killing, Robert Ramirez, is still awaiting trial. The other, Luis Rincon, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
Florida’s new law adds homeless people to an existing hate crimes statute that increases penalties for attacks motivated by race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, mental or physical disability or advanced age.
Maximum penalties go up one degree from what they normally would be. The new law, though, would not have affected Rincon’s sentence because the maximum for second-degree murder already is life in prison.
The Florida law’s sponsor, Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, said it would come into play for such cases as the beating of a homeless man by four attackers in Pompano Beach two years ago. The suspects posted a video of the attack on YouTube.
“They threw him down,” Porth said. “They slapped him around. He wasn’t badly enough hurt for aggravated battery charges to be filed, but they were yelling offensive things about him being homeless. You can imagine the words.”
The suspects pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery and received sentences ranging from a year of probation to 364 days in jail. The maximum is a year in jail, but the new law would have permitted up to five years.
Case was one of five homeless people murdered in hate attacks against the homeless last year in Florida, according to an annual report issued by Donovan’s Washington, D.C.-based coalition in August. Eleven other homeless people were attacked in Florida for a total of 16 crimes.
That was second to California’s 27 attacks, but Florida had led the nation in each of the four prior years.
The coalition detailed 117 hate attacks across the United States in 2009 including 43 fatalities, the second highest toll in the 11 years the coalition has been collecting data — 59 percent more than the 27 deaths in 2008.
The report probably misses many attacks because the organization has a small staff that relies on Internet searches and tips, Donovan said. That’s why he and other advocates are lobbying for bills in Congress that would add hate attacks against the homeless to crime information the FBI routinely collects from law enforcement agencies across the nation.
The rise in attacks against homeless victims runs counter to FBI statistics showing overall violent crime dropped 5.5 percent last year.
Donovan said the economy may be a factor as some people take out their frustration and anger on those below them on the financial ladder. Advocates also blame street gangs that have made attacking homeless people an initiation rite and web-based video games with such names as “Bumrise” that promote violence against the homeless.
Maine in 2006 was the first state to increase penalties but, like Alaska later, did not classify the attacks as hate crimes. Maryland last year was the first to label such attacks as hate crimes and was followed this year by Rhode Island and then Florida.
The Florida legislation languished for years, but it got a boost this year when Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti dispatched Commander Rick Wierzbicki, chief of his Hate Crimes/Anti-bias Task Force, to testify before legislative committees in Tallahassee.
That was after Wierzbicki told Lamberti that Maryland acted after legislators there viewed video of a notorious 2006 fatal attack in Broward.
“He said,” Wierzbicki recalled, “we need Florida to be the second.”