Antisemitic incidents are a problem in Florida. New hate crime laws make penalties harsher

A man who was arrested last Sunday for spewing antisemitic slurs in front of a Sunny Isles Beach synagogue and threatening congregants on their way to Shabbat services will face felony charges under a new Florida law enacted earlier this year.

The defendant, Yudel Antonio Herrero, 47, was charged with a misdemeanor for disturbing a religious assembly, but the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office said the charges will be upgraded to a third-degree felony under a new Florida statute that allows certain offenses to be re-classified as hate crimes and punishable by enhanced penalties.

Witnesses told police that Yudel approached multiple men on their way to King David Chabad and yelled “all Jews must die” and other antisemitic slurs. Yudel, serial-harasser of the synagogue, disturbed the service by blowing the shofar, or ram’s horn, a ritual that’s performed during the High Holy Days and refused to leave after the rabbi asked him to, according to the arrest report.

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Upgrading the misdemeanor charge to a felony is one of the first uses of the hate crime law in Miami-Dade since it was enacted earlier this year, according to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

“Before House Bill 269, this would have remained as a misdemeanor. And a misdemeanor is a misdemeanor, you’re not going to do time,” said James Somohano, director of community security for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “The new legislation makes it possible for that misdemeanor to be bumped up to a felony hate crime … And that’s a serious offense in Miami-Dade.”

Somohano’s role, the first of its kind at the Jewish Federation, is to help local synagogues, agencies and schools stay prepared against attacks. He said a big part of his job is acting as a liaison between the Jewish community and law enforcement when dealing with hate crimes, as well as educating police on the new enhanced penalties.

“The reason that it’s important to have the statute is because we have seen such an elevation in antisemitic harassment and crimes. HB 269 is a fantastic tool, but it can’t stop there. There needs to be more,” said Somohano, referencing the bill that became law. Before joining the Federation, Somohano worked in Miami-Dade law enforcement for over 36 years.

Religious hate crimes on rise

Nationally, hate crime incidents are on the rise, increasing almost 12 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to an FBI report on 2021 hate crimes. Religious-based hate crimes made up a little over 15 percent of all incidents. Though Jews make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. population, anti-Jewish incidents accounted for over half of all religious hate crimes, the report said.

Antisemitic incidents are at an all-time high in Florida, according to a 2022 audit released earlier this year from the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that tracks and combats antisemitism and other acts of hate. Last year, Florida saw 269 acts related to assault, harassment and vandalism — a 42 percent increase since 2021 and the highest number of recorded antisemitic incidents since ADL began tracking them in 1979.

Many hate crimes target victims simply for who they, while intimidating entire communities, said Lonny Wilk, deputy regional director of ADL in Florida.

“Hate crime laws, which increase penalties or sentences from criminals who commit them, are a way for society to recognize that these crimes strike fear in targeted groups and fragment communities,” he said.

A man shows up with a “’Come and Take It’ flag with an automatic weapon on it in response to the Anti-Hate March led by We the People on Sunday, July 2, 2023, in downtown Fort Lauderdale. A protester in the background was carrying a sign that said, “Ban guns not drag queens.”

Here’s what to know about the newly expanded Florida hate crime laws:

What is the new Florida law?

Florida statute 784.0493 — “Harassment or intimidation based on religious or ethnic heritage” — is a part of House Bill 269, the “Public Nuisances” bill, which was signed into law on May 1 and went into effect immediately. The law covers a variety of crimes, including dumping litter on private property and making threats to public universities.

The statute relates to religious or ethnic-based hate crimes and states that someone who willfully and maliciously harasses or intimidates another person based on their religion or ethnicity can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor. But if the person, while committing the harassment, makes a credible threat to the other parties, then the violation is a third-degree felony.

Another new state law, Florida statute 775.085, reclassifies hate crime offenses to include harsher punishments. For example, a second-degree misdemeanor is now reclassified to a first-degree misdemeanor — a charge treated with more severity — and a first-degree misdemeanor is reclassified to a third-degree felony, and so on.

What makes something a “hate crime?”

Hate crime offenses in Florida include acts committed based on the race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, homeless status, or advanced age of the victim. This kind of crime might look like a group of white teenagers threatening a Black teenager while using racial slurs, a gay man who is physically assaulted in front of a gay bar, or a bomb threat called into an Islamic center, according to the State Attorney’s website.

Hate speech alone would not constitute a hate crime under the First Amendment. But hate speech coupled with another offense, such as defacing public property or harassment, is considered a hate crime.

“Unless it falls into one of these other categories of unprotected speech, just saying hateful things about a group of people is protected in the United States. That’s First Amendment law,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law.

Categories of unprotected speech include true threats, defamation and inciting lawless action.

“The United States is unusually protective of free speech, much more so than most other countries,” said Corbin. “And one of the consequences of that is hate speech is protected.”

As of this year, under the Hate Crimes Reporting Act, Florida now requires the state government and law enforcement to collect and disseminate data on all hate crimes. Miami-Dade County also has a Hate Crimes Unit Hot line (786) 687-2566.

What else does the law do?

The law also makes changes to an existing statute, which prohibits someone from maliciously interrupting any school or religious assembly, such as a church service or funeral.

The main changes include a penalty increase from a second-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree misdemeanor and allowing the person to be charged with a third-degree felony if the violator makes a credible threat.

Will the law deter hate crimes from happening?

Whether the law will act as a deterrent remains to be seen, but experts says the law is key toward combating hate crimes.

“It is essential that law enforcement have the tools that are needed to effectively prosecute hate crimes,” said Brian Siegal, Miami-Broward regional director of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group. “Many synagogues and other Jewish institutions have been forced to take extreme security measures because of such threats. We want to send a clear signal that religiously motivated attacks have no place in Florida.”

But many advocacy groups believe the hate crime laws in Florida don’t go far enough.

“Florida’s hate crime law is not comprehensive,” said Wilk of the ADL. “It does not cover the categories of gender, gender identity and physical disability.”

Additionally, it takes time to inform the public and the police about the new laws, which is the case with House Bill 269, said Somohano, the federation’s new security director.

“It’s not that law enforcement doesn’t want to pursue individuals that commit these crimes, it’s that sometimes they are unaware of all of the tools that they have,” said Somohano. “More and more agencies are aware of House Bill 269. More and more of them are looking for how to properly apply it.”

This report was created with philanthropic support from Christian, Muslim and Jewish funders in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all work.

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