Government

Iowa City Council to discuss hate crime ordinance

Local rule would set penalties for harassment born of hatred

City Hall is shown in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
City Hall is shown in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — People could face fines and jail time if convicted of harassment born of hatred in Iowa City, according to a proposed ordinance.

The Johnson County Interfaith Coalition proposed the ordinance, which is scheduled for first consideration at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Iowa City Council. The rule would go into effect if approved three times.

The proposed ordinance allows both harassment and trespass with intent to harass to be considered hate crimes should they violate Iowa City’s human rights ordinance. That ordinance forbids discrimination based on “race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to the city.

A memo from Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes notes that Iowa Code allows enhanced penalties for certain crimes that are targeted toward a person’s identity or characteristics. The hate crime enhancements increase penalties.

But harassment is not listed as a state crime that allows the enhancements, police Chief Jody Matherly said.

So the proposed city rule would create the crimes, if committed in violation of the city’s human rights ordinance, as simple misdemeanors with maximum fines and jail time. For a first offense, the proposal recommends a fine of $300 to $625 and three to five days in jail. For repeated offenses, a fine of $625 and 30 days of jail time are recommended.

In her memo, Dilkes gave examples of what could and could not be charged under the ordinance. A suspect who harasses another person and leaves a threatening note on the door because that person is black could be prosecuted, Dilkes wrote. But it would not prohibit someone from posting “it’s OK to be white” leaflets on lampposts because that would be protected by the First Amendment.

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Matherly said Iowa law includes charges such as assault, criminal mischief and arson as ones that can be enhanced as hate crimes. But with so many ways people today can intimidate others including with online posts, the current state law seems outdated, he said.

The Johnson County Interfaith Coalition proposal said a team of students from the University of Iowa College of Law’s Legal Clinic was asked to work with the coalition’s Safe Communities Task Force to create the ordinance.

Matherly, who began encouraging people to reach out to legislators about hate crime laws after taking bias training last year, credits the coalition with coming forward with a solution.

“These acts affect not just the victim but the community as a whole,” he said. “They can send shock waves through the community.”

• Comments: kayli.reese@thegazette.com

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