Federal "Hate Crime" Laws (18 U.S.C. § 249)
Explained by Nevada Criminal Defense Attorneys

Federal hate crime legislation was only recently revised to include sexual orientation as well as race. A conviction for committing hate crimes is extremely serious, carrying up to a life sentence.

This article explains the basics of federal hate crime laws. Keep reading for what constitutes hate crimes, how our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys fight against allegations, and typical punishments in Nevada.


The legal definition of "hate crime" under federal law is when someone willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person.

In short, it is a hate crime to hurt someone else out of bias for his/her race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or disability. Note that hate crimes do not include causing a victim solely emotional or psychological harm. Henderson NV criminal defense attorney Michael Becker provides an example:

Example: Tom goes to a park in Henderson and taunts Jason in a wheelchair by repeatedly calling him "cripple." The incident causes Jason to feel suicidal, and he can no longer go about his job or live independently. Despite that Tom caused Jason severe emotional distress, he would not be booked at the Henderson NV Detention Center on federal hate crime charges because he never physically hurt Jason.

If in the above example Tom punched and injured Jason, then Tom may face federal hate crime charges for causing someone bodily injury due to his disability.

The other key element to federal hate crime law is that the defendant's actions must be motivated by bias. If a defendant hurts someone for a reason that has nothing to do with discrimination, then he/she should not be convicted of a hate crime. Tonopah NV criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse elucidates on this concept:

Example: Jonah is driving in Reno when Sam accidentally sideswipes his car. Angry, Jonah gets out of the car and punches Sam so hard he breaks his arm. Sam happens to be homosexual, and Jonah is anti-gay. If Jonah is caught, the U.S. Marshals Service would booked Jonah at the Washoe County Detention Center for the Nevada crime of battery, but he probably would not be convicted for hate crimes. Despite Jonah's bias against homosexuals, it had nothing to do with his reason for hurting Sam.

Therefore, hate crimes are not meant to punish people for having racial or sexual biases. Instead, it is meant to punish people who act violently based on those racial or sexual biases.

Federal v. Nevada state law

Nevada's hate crime laws are a little different from federal laws. Currently, gender is not a basis of hate crime prosecution in Nevada. And a person may be convicted of Nevada hate crimes even if the underlying crime is not a violent offense. For more information see our article on Nevada hate crime laws.

Note that all federal hate crime cases are litigated in either one of two courthouses: The Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse, which is located in Las Vegas, or the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse, which is located in Reno.


The U.S. Attorney's Office has a double burden when trying to prove that the defendant committed a federal hate crime. They have to show not only that the defendant committed the crime but also that the defendant did so because of the victim's race, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

A defendant's motivation may be very difficult to prove because it is intangible and subject to interpretation. Therefore, if the defense attorney can show that the prosecution lacks adequate evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted out of discrimination, the charge should be dismissed.

If the prosecution fails to prove that a hate crime occurred, the defendant may still face charges for the underlying violent crime. In that case, the defense attorney may try to fight the allegations with such standard tactics as:

  • mistaken identity
  • misconduct by law enforcement
  • false accusation
  • self-defense in Nevada
  • accident
  • lack of evidence

Other defenses to federal hate crimes may include that the defendant's alleged actions did not sufficiently affect interstate commerce, or that the seven-year statute of limitations has passed. But note there is no statute of limitations for alleged hate crimes that result in death to the victim.


The penalty for violating federal hate crimes law in Nevada turns on the severity of the situation. The defendant faces up to a life sentence and/or a fine if:

Otherwise, a federal hate crime conviction in Nevada carries a sentence of up to ten years in Federal Prison and/or a fine.

Nevada state penalties

Generally, misdemeanors in Nevada that are committed as hate crimes are punished as gross misdemeanors in Nevada. Therefore, the maximum penalty would be up to $2,000 in fines and/or up to one year in jail such as Clark County Detention Center.

As for felonies in Nevada that are committed as hate crimes, the prison sentence may be as much as doubled (up to twenty extra years) in Nevada State Prison. And for hate crimes involving the Nevada crime of murder, the Nevada Federal Court may impose the death penalty in Nevada if it finds at least one aggravating factor that outweighs all mitigating factors.

Note that defendants who are convicted of hate crimes in both state and federal court serve both sentences consecutively (one after the other).

Arrested? Call . . . .

If you have been charged with federal "hate crimes" in Nevada, call our Nevada federal criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) for a free consultation in Las Vegas or by phone. We will explore all options including plea bargains, trials, and trying to negotiate a dismissal in order to win you a favorable resolution.



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