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Hate-crimes law challenge dismissed

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A federal judge Friday dismissed a legal challenge to the state's hate-crimes statute, but one attorney says the ruling does nothing to clarify the controversial law.

Animal-rights activist Eric Ward sued the state after he was charged under the statute in November 1999. However, because the charges were subsequently dropped, U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball ruled that Ward has no legal standing to file suit against the law.

That determination prevented Kimball from considering the challenges to the law's constitutionality, Salt Lake attorney Brian Barnard said.

"What this does is that he doesn't have to decide the merits," Barnard said. "This really gives us no indication as to what the judge thinks about the constitutionality of the statute. It skirts that issue on a procedural issue."

Barnard had argued that the language of the 10-year-old legislation is unconstitutionally vague and allows for criminal prosecution against virtually anyone under the label of a "hate crime."

True hate-crimes laws are intended to enhance penalties when a crime is committed because of a victim's race, gender, sexual preference or religion, Barnard said. Utah's law, however, simply targets people who commit an offense with the intent to "intimidate or terrorize another person," which violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

Ward was charged under the disputed statute after burning a mink stole outside the Magna home of the owners of a Salt Lake fur salon. Prosecutors relied upon the hate-crime law to increase Ward's disorderly conduct charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.

He was also previously charged under the law after chaining himself to the front door of a fur salon. The hate-crime enhancement was dropped and Ward reached a plea agreement on trespassing charges, Barnard said.

Barnard said Ward planned to continue participating in such protests and therefore faced future prosecution under the law.

But Kimball determined that Ward's future involvement in legal protests does not make him a target. (Ward's) plans 'to continue to legally engage in lawful First Amendment protected activities' provide no possibility that (Ward) will ever be charged under the challenged statute, Kimball wrote. "Therefore, there is no actual or well-founded fear that the challenged statute would ever be enforced against (Ward)."

Before anyone can be charged under the statute, they first must be charged with an underlying primary offense specified in the statute, Kimball ruled.

The problem with that argument, Barnard said, is that the hate-crime statute can be applied to minimal crimes, such as disorderly conduct or trespassing. Protestors demonstrating on a public street are involved in a legal activity, but the first time one steps onto private property they can be charged with trespassing, he said.

Barnard said he will ask Kimball to reconsider his ruling, or at the very least change his order to allow Ward to refile the lawsuit should he ever again be charged under the law

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com