In Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the U.S., hate crimes are a punishable offense. Hate crimes are defined as traditional offenses that range from arson and vandalism to murder, with the exception that there is an additional element of bias. For example, if a person vandalized a piece of property due to the owner's race, disability, religion, gender or sexual orientation, that person may be charged with a hate crime.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations considers hate crimes to be of high priority due to the fact that hatred and intolerance could potentially turn violent and encourage terrorism on domestic soil. In fact, the FBI has been investigating these claims since World War I. The role of the FBI increased even further after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
There are a number of steps that the FBI takes to tackle hate crimes. These steps include supporting local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with investigating potential hate crimes, even if federal charges are never filed. This includes offering forensic expertise and identification techniques. The results of the investigation are given to the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and local U.S. Attorneys Offices so that it can be determined if charges are warranted.
Freedom of speech is not a crime in the U.S. If a person is accused of an actual hate crime versus hate speech, which involves actual damage to a person's property or personal injury due to that person's race, gender, disability, or religion, the consequences could potentially include a prison sentence. A criminal law attorney may defend a person against the accusations of federal crimes. In some cases, the attorney may challenge the evidence of a hate crime federal prosecutors may have, especially if there is little to no connection of bias.