SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - A hate crime in Georgia or South Carolina won’t cost you any more time in state prison than a random crime. The states are two of five that don’t have hate crime laws in the U.S.
The only way to punish someone for these crimes is if the federal government gets involved. Federal law defines a hate crime as any crime committed because of a person’s sex, ethnicity, disability, language, nationality, physical appearance, religion, or sexual orientation.
Neither state has a law that mirrors federal code. Lawmakers in both states are aware there is no legislation addressing hate crimes right now. As far as adding it, some believe it’s a slippery slope.
However, a Savannah man and woman who were victims of a crime they believe was fueled by hate, say it’s past due to change the laws.
Former Savannah fire captain Barry Arnold was sentenced to two years in prison for pointing a gun at an African-American couple in October of 2015. He pleaded guilty to doing so. The couple and other people eating at a Southside Savannah restaurant say he spewed racist words and phrases at the couple and other people inside.
“If I was anywhere else, I know he would’ve shot me,” Marquist Curtis said. “That was definitely a hate crime, not a shadow of a doubt. He knew what he was doing.”
In the parking lot after a fight inside, Curtis said Arnold pulled a gun and his firefighter badge, and said both gave Arnold “a right to kill (expletive) and get away with it.” Police found a loaded pistol in Arnold’s glove box and charged Arnold with three misdemeanors that night. It took more than a year to get the DA to re-open the case.
A grand jury indicted Arnold on felony charges. He pleaded guilty in early 2017. A judge’s 15-year sentence came with two years in prison and eight years on probation. The judge sentenced Arnold under the First Offender Act, which means this will all be off his record if he completes the sentence.
"It definitely felt like he got a spanking,” Curtis said.
“The crime terrorized more than Marquist and Amber,” said the couple’s attorney Will Claiborne. “It could’ve been any African-American couple. It wasn’t about them personally. It was about their pigment.”
Claiborne calls this a textbook hate crime. He and the couple are in the process of suing Arnold civilly.
When looking at the history of hate crime laws in Georgia, state lawmakers actually passed a hate crime law in 2000. Four years later, the state supreme court struck it down for being too broad. The state has not really revisited the issue seriously since then.
"I think since we’ve already passed it one time and had it tossed out, I suspect you’re going to see folks take a little more time with it and make sure that it’s a lot tighter drawn,” said Republican Representative Ron Stephens.
Stephens believes lawmakers would support a law that mirrors the federal code. However, a House bill introduced last year very similar to the federal law didn’t make it very far. Introduced in the last session, HB 660 required at least two more years in prison for hate crimes in an offense that was a felony. It also wouldn’t allow for the defendant to be sentenced under the First Offender Act.
“It’s a mine field if you will,” Stephens said. “We’ve got to be sure that we do it right this time, and it’s upheld in the courts.”
In South Carolina, it’s the same story. Despite the Charleston church shooting at Emmanuel AME, the state still doesn’t have a hate crime law. Republican State Senator Tom Davis said hate crime laws represent a slippery slope when talking about people’s thoughts as opposed to their actions.
"We need to be careful that we don’t somehow migrate toward a situation where people can be accused of a crime or people can be at risk of a crime simply for thoughts without there being actions coupled to it,” Davis said.
Despite this, he supports passing a law that mirrors federal law. There is currently nothing in the works in Columbia to do that right now though. For Marquist and Amber, seeing hate crime legislation represents a positive change.
“[Arnold] was representing our city and put up a blindfold to everyone to be this upstanding citizen, but all in all hate was in his heart,” Curtis said.
“It’s not cool that he’s able to live his life and go on,” Amber Curtis said. “We have to continue to deal with what happened that night.”
This crime was never reported to the FBI as a hate crime. In fact, no police department in Chatham or surrounding counties has reported a hate crime to the FBI in the last decade. Supporters of adding a state law said it gives local prosecutors an extra tool when federal prosecutors don’t get involved.