PROVIDENCE — During the Rhode Island Report podcast, state Attorney General Peter F. Neronha talked about why his office has failed to convince judges to apply a state hate crime law to a pair of recent incidents.
Neronha also talked about his priorities for gun legislation, the importance of giving body-worn cameras to all police officers in Rhode Island, and when his office will release its findings about an incident in which an off-duty Pawtucket police officer shot a teenage driver in the arm.
Last summer, a white South Kingstown woman subjected a Black family to a racial tirade at a Narragansett restaurant, telling them “go back where you came from.”
A judge called the woman’s actions “vile and disgusting,” but determined he could not apply the state’s hate crime enhancement to give her a harsher sentence. “If the legislature wanted to include petty misdemeanors in the sentencing-enhancement statute, it would have done so,” District Court Judge James J. Caruolo said in June.
Neronha said he respects Caruolo but disagrees with his reading of the state Hate Crimes Sentencing Act. “The judge concluded that that’s a petty misdemeanor and so therefore it’s not included within the definition of crime,” he said. “I view disorderly conduct as a crime.”
But “reasonable minds could differ,” Neronha said, so he wants to clarify the law by, for example, spelling out whether it applies to petty misdemeanors.
Judge Caruolo also questioned why the attorney general’s office did not charge the woman with assault, saying she might have received a stiffer sentence if she had faced that charge.
But Neronha rejected the idea that his office made a mistake. “It’s pretty clear it’s not an assault,” he said. “Again, with respect to Judge Caruolo, I’m not sure what he was thinking there.” He said disorderly conduct was the right charge and that “mere words without assaultive conduct” is unlikely to result in an assault conviction.
Neronha’s office could not convince another judge to apply the hate crime enhancement law to the case of a Barrington man who was found guilty of disorderly conduct and assault for yelling racial slurs in a dispute with his Muslim neighbors.
District Court Judge Stephen M. Isherwood said that while he found the racial slurs “nothing less than repulsive,” he wasn’t convinced that the hate crime sentencing law should apply.
Neronha disagreed with that decision, saying that while the incident involved a border dispute, the enhancement should apply in “mixed motive cases” as long as part of the motivation was driven by hate. “So, again, we’re trying to clarify that,” he said. “I think we’re right on that issue.”
At the attorney general’s request, Representative Mary Ann Shallcross Smith, a Lincoln Democrat, introduced a bill to revamp the Hate Crimes Sentencing Act. But the House Judiciary Committee held it for further study, and the legislative session is expected to end Thursday.
Neronha said that before he took office, the hate crime enhancement law had not been used for years. “We decided to use it because we thought the principle was important,” he said. “Put yourself in the shoes of a family that allegedly can’t have a meal simply because they’re targeted because of the color of their skin ... That conduct is just not tolerable.”
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below: