When Howard Spence, an Eaton County commissioner, got in his car to go and pick up a twenty-something man on Lansing’s southwest side last winter, he didn’t expect the Craigslist meet-up would ultimately lead to getting his wallet and car stolen.
Bernard Brand Smith has been charged with the theft as a habitual criminal. But he could not be charged with a hate crime — Spence said he identifies himself as “gay bi-friendly” — because legislation to amend the state’s Ethnic Intimidation Act to include sexual orientation and gender remains stalled.
Despite sponsorship by a bona fide conservative, state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, the measure appears doomed this session after Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, referred it to the Senate Government Operations Committee. Meekhof also chairs that committee.
“Normally, that's the committee where things go to die,” said Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, who with Jones introduced the legislation in June. “Leadership has told me it normally sends hate crimes legislation to that committee and that it doesn’t mean it’s dead. But history says otherwise.”
Similar legislation to amend the 1988 Ethnic Intimidation Act has been introduced in numerous sessions of the state Legislature since at least 1998, but it has never moved out of assigned committees.
Neither Meekhof nor his spokeswoman, Amber McCann, responded to inquiries about the measure’s fate.
The senators introduced the measure in June following news reports about similar local incidents of gay men being targeted for crimes. They hoped it would be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Jones chairs and on which Bieda and another Republican sponsor, Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights, serve. The committee, which handles proposals for new and reformed criminal laws, would have had enough votes to send the bill to the full Senate, according to Jones and Bieda.
If the reformed hate crimes legislation is adopted into law, it would read to include that “a person is guilty of ethnic intimidation if that person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of that person’s race, color, religion, gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, or national origin, does any of the following,” which includes causing physical contact with another person. Committing a hate crime is a felony.
In the meantime, Spence is among a group of individuals who cannot under Michigan law seek to prosecute offenders on the basis of anti-LGBT motivation. But that doesn’t mean the issue is going unnoticed.
“The crime is unlikely to be considered a hate crime under current statute, which doesn't mean that it isn't a hate crime,” said Emily Dievendorf, president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, an LGBT organization serving mid-Michigan.
“If the attack on Commissioner Spence was inspired or fueled by the assailant's prejudice, it is at least a bias crime," Dievendorf said, "but because Michigan has neglected to pass our own LGBTQ hate crimes act, the attack, no matter how inspired by anti- LGBTQ hate, will not be considered a hate crime under Michigan law.”
Dievendorf added that the crime against Spence should be reviewed for possible violation of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, established in 2009.
While there is no anti-LGBT bias law in Michigan, the Michigan State Police collects statistics. In 2015, hate crime numbers dropped to 495 victims and 399 incidents from 532 and 441, respectively, from the year before. Of those cases last year, 61 were motivated by antigay bias, according to MSP. In 2014, 60 such cases were reported.
Spence confirmed that the thefts stemming from the Craigslist exchange happened, but he declined to discuss it further until Smith is sentenced later this month. Spence said he had nothing to be ashamed of regarding the details of the case, despite an ongoing whisper campaign being waged against him in Eaton County where he serves as commissioner.
According to the police report, Spence exchanged emails and photos with Smith in February, and they decided to meet. After Spence pick up Smith in Lansing, the two visited the hot tub at Spence’s Delta Township home. Following that, Spence thought Smith was going to give him a massage. He waited in a different part of the home for Smith to join him, according to the police report, but instead, he wound up with his wallet missing, along with his 2007 Toyota Camry.
Smith vanished, and Eaton County officials began their investigation into the thefts. The investigation never explored the motivation for the crime. Smith entered into a plea deal to one charge of unlawfully driving away an automobile and one charge of being a habitual criminal, according to the Eaton Circuit Court. The plea deal dropped a charge of larceny.
Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township, who also sponsored the proposed legislation, said stalling the bill is indicative of the GOP leadership’s refusal to do anything to “expand the rights of the LGBT community.”
Bieda and Jones said that if the bill dies in committee this session, they will reintroduce it next year.
“I am hopeful that sometime in the near future we’ll have a hearing,” Bieda said, “and it will land on the governor’s desk.”