Tip Sheet

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Hate Crimes in Wisconsin

  • by
  • michael munson

June 1, 2017

Hate crimes (also called “bias” crimes) are motivated by prejudice against the victim’s actual or perceived identity or membership in a particular group.  Hate crimes include vandalism as well as assault.

In addition to being an assault against an individual, a hate crime is an assault against a community by sending a clear message of hate to the entire community.  Since hate crimes are based on the perpetrator’s perception of the victim’s identity, the victim does not have to actually belong to that group to be targeted.

In Wisconsin, hate crimes may receive harsher punishment than crimes without bias.  Wisconsin’s Hate Crime Penalty Enhancer, Ch. 939.645(1)(b), defines a hate crime as one where the perpetrator intentionally selects the victim or the victim’s property in whole or in part because of the perpetrator’s belief or perception of the victim’s race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.

The perpetrator’s bias-motivated crime can be prosecuted as a hate crime whether or not the perpetrator’s belief or perception was correct.  In other words, prosecutors do not have to prove that the victim was, for example, gay, lesbian or bisexual – just that the perpetrator chose the victim thinking s/he was gay, lesbian or bisexual.  Currently, Wisconsin’s hate crime law is generally interpreted not to include transgender people, an omission that would need to be corrected by legislative action.

To be prosecuted for a hate crime in Wisconsin, the perpetrator must have committed a crime under existing laws (such as vandalism or assault).  Thus, criminals who vandalize the property of a lesbian because she is a lesbian could be charged with vandalism with the hate crimes penalty enhancer.  However, if the same lesbian’s property was randomly vandalized, the perpetrator could be charged with vandalism only.  Because an underlying crime must have been committed in order for the hate crime penalty enhancer to be used, Wisconsin’s hate crime law does not punish hateful speech in the absence of a crime.

Remember, for a crime – hate-motivated or not – to be prosecuted – the victim must report the crime to the police.

Note: This article was adapted with permission from “Hate Crime Basics,” a webpage prepared by the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center’s Anti-Violence Project and available at http://mkelgbt.org/awareness/avp_hatecrimes.asp#WiStatute