New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation this month that makes it a crime to use 911 as a tool to intimidate another person based on his or her race. The bill, which has already taken effect, was introduced to the State Senate on June 29, 2020. It amends and expands the state’s existing false public alarm statute to include false incrimination and filing a false police report as forms of bias intimidation when they are done in an attempt to intimidate or harass an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.
Bias intimidation has long been a crime in New Jersey, and it occurs when a person is the target of a crime specifically because of his or her race or other protected status. When this additional layer of intent is present in the commission of a crime, it is commonly referred to as a “hate crime”. The penalties for committing a hate crime or bias intimidation are usually harsher and in addition to the penalties for committing the underlying offense. The reason for the harsher penalties is that the charge of bias intimidation is generally considered a crime of one degree higher than the most serious underlying offense. For instance, let’s assume that a Caucasian man ran his car into an African American man as he crossed the street, causing serious bodily harm, and the Caucasian man did so because of his race. Because assault by auto resulting in serious bodily injury is a crime of the fourth degree, the Caucasian driver is subject to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for assault by auto. When the additional charge of bias intimidation is considered, he is now facing an additional 3-5 years in prison and $15,000 fine.
The state’s new law addressing racially-motivated 911 calls and false police reports appears to work slightly differently, however, by merging bias intimidation with the underlying crime. The statute (found at N.J.S. 2C:33-3), has been amended to add:
“A person is guilty of a crime of the third degree if the person knowingly places a call to a 9-1-1 emergency telephone system with purpose to intimidate or harass an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.”
As the statute is now written, there is no additional criminal penalty when the underlying crimes are racially motivated. If a person is found guilty of calling 911 as a way to harass someone based on his or her race, that will be considered one third degree crime.
When speaking about the amendment, Governor Murphy stated, “Using the threat of a 911 call or police report as an intimidation tactic against people of color is an unacceptable, abhorrent form of discrimination,” and “Individuals who choose to weaponize this form of intimidation should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.” Governor Murphy called these types of hate crimes irresponsible and dangerous, and lamented that they can cause distrust among the state’s residents, dividing people along racial lines. New Jersey Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal, said that false 911 calls interfere with 911 emergency operations and “put law enforcement at risk.”
The legislation comes just months after a Black man recorded a white woman calling 911 and falsely reporting that he was threatening her after he asked her to put her dog on a leash in New York City’s Central Park. His cell phone video went viral, accumulating more than 40 million views on Twitter, and influenced a similar law being passed in New York City. Race-based 911 calls have been front and center in the media recently, and have earned the white women often placing them the colloquial name “Karens.” Hate crimes do not have to race-based, however. As stated in the statute, hate crimes can be committed against any protected group, and can be based on characteristics such as ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. Last month, a white man in Howell, N.J. pleaded guilty to bias intimidation after sending Facebook messages threatening assault with a baseball bat against members of Lakewood’s Jewish community. In April, an Atlantic County man was charged with a bias incident after he allegedly set a parked van on fire and threatened its owner because he was Mexican. These crimes need not be committed by white perpetrators either. Last year, two17-year-old boys of Indian descent were arrested and charged with bias intimidation after allegedly using racial slurs and urinating on a group of four African American middle-school girls at a Lawrence High School football game. Bias intimidation can happen in the workplace as well. In April 2007, two Public Works employees in Gloucester, N.J. lured an African-American co-worker into a storage cage in the township’s Public Works building, locked the cage for several minutes and mocked their victim saying, “You throw a banana in the cage and he goes right in.” Although the two men arrested and charged in the incident claimed it was only a prank, a jury convicted one of them under provisions of the state’s bias intimidation law.
As the state’s hate crime statute expands, our discrimination attorneys will continue to ensure that victims are protected under these changing laws. By enacting the new bias intimidation bill, the state has moved toward a safer and more equitable system for addressing the pervasive problem of discrimination in New Jersey.