Florida may toughen law for hate crimes after gay-pride display was vandalized in Delray Beach

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Dec 20, 2021 8:14 PM

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Alexander Jerich, of Delray Beach, has been charged with criminal mischief over $1,000 and reckless driving after allegedly defacing a gay pride intersection.

Florida may soon close a legal loophole that recently allowed a man to avoid a hate-crime charge for a vandalized gay-pride display in Delray Beach, prosecutors say.

State Sen. Tina Polsky and State Rep. Emily Slosberg, are sponsoring bills for a new state law that lets prosecutors pursue hate-crime charges when crimes involve defaced streets, walls and other properties that belong to local governments or organizations.

Under Florida law, people may be charged with hate crimes when they’ve attacked someone because of their race or color, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or age. The current state law also provides for hate-crime enhancements in vandalism cases involving people’s private property — but not for public roadways and other government property.

“This important bill will close a glaring loophole in state law that allows defendants to avoid hate crime charges even though their actions were motivated by prejudice,” Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said. “This bill gives prosecutors the tools needed to hold fully accountable those who harm our community with hateful conduct.”

The bills come after a vandalism case over the summer that didn’t meet Florida’s definition of a hate crime, angering a number of people in the local LGBTQ community. Police say a driver was video-recorded defacing an LGBTQ-inspired street painting in Delray Beach. The man is accused of doing a burnout, a instance in which a driver spins the wheels of their car while not in gear, or with the emergency brake engaged, causing the tires to smoke and leave burn marks on the ground.

The driver was participating in a parade for former President Donald Trump’s birthday, according to court documents.

Alexander Jerich, 20, of Lake Worth Beach, was accused of defacing a gay pride intersection in Delray Beach.

Alexander Jerich, 20, of Lake Worth Beach, was accused of defacing a gay pride intersection in Delray Beach. (Delray Beach Police Department/Courtesy)

Jerich said at an October court hearing that he intended to take his case to trial. His attorney at the time, Pedro Dijols, had told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that Jerich was remorseful and looked forward to putting the matter behind him. A start date for trial has not been set yet, but is expected to be decided by a judge in February. His current attorney couldn’t be immediately reached for comment despite a phone call late Monday.

If he were convicted, Jerich would face up to six years in prison. The state also would seek restitution for the costs of repainting, Aronberg said. If this bill were already law, under the hate-crime enhancements, Jerich could have faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.

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Aronberg said he thinks Jerich’s actions were clearly motivated by prejudice and wants this bill to be signed into law.

Still, it’s unclear if the bill would stand up to a legal challenge: The issue boils down to whether the government can prove someone’s intention prior to committing an alleged crime, said Malik Leigh, an attorney and former law teacher.

“You’d have to ask him his mindset and charge based on that, and so that would make it subjective,” he said. “In many cases, you can charge a crime like murder if someone commits a murder, but you can’t always guess their mindset.”

Polsky’s Senate Bill 1208 and Slosberg’s companion House Bill 883 were filed earlier this month but it could be months before the Legislature votes on them. Then it would go to Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign it into law or veto it.

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