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Coakley presses rights orders

Hate crimes cases surge since ’07

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / August 31, 2010

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Attorney General Martha Coakley has obtained three times as many court orders requiring people to stay away from individuals they allegedly targeted in hate crimes since 2007 as her predecessor did in the prior four years, according to statistics supplied by her office.

Coakley has obtained 41 civil rights injunctions in civil proceedings since she took office in January 2007, compared with 14 in the previous four years under Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a fellow Democrat, the statistics show.

The bad economy, post-9/11 fears of terrorism, and gains achieved by minorities, such as the right of gays to wed and the election of the first black president, might have caused hate crimes to rise, she said.

But most of the surge in injunctions — essentially restraining orders that threaten violators with jail — stems from more aggressive enforcement by her office of the Massachusetts civil rights law, she said. She has made obtaining such orders a high priority, she said, encouraging advocacy groups and police departments to alert her to hate crimes and directing her staff to read news accounts to determine whether to seek injunctions.

Thirteen of the 41 court orders involved victims targeted because of race or ethnicity, making that the biggest reason for hate crimes, according to her statistics. The second-biggest category, 10 cases, involved people targeted because of sexual orientation. The third largest, four cases, involved people targeted because of their religion.

Among the recent alleged incidents:

■ A white supremacist skinhead with neo-Nazi tattoos threatened to kill a Jewish man shopping at a Stop & Shop in Wareham in September 2009 and prevented him from returning to his car.

■ A Springfield couple shouted racial epithets at three black school-age girls walking home in January 2010, threatened to loose a Rottweiler on them, and then beat two of them with a log.

■ Also in January, two Wakefield women shouted antigay slurs at a man on an MBTA Orange Line train, then attacked him, prompting the train attendant to rescue him by helping him into the attendant’s compartment.

Coakley, who is running unopposed for a second term in November, said the orders protect victims and deliver a message that the state will not tolerate such crimes.

“If people can get away with harassment or violence against groups because [the groups] happen to be unpopular, then it will continue and it will grow,’’ she said.

Reilly, who is now in private practice and was also Coakley’s predecessor as Middlesex County district attorney, did not return phone calls for comment.

Passed by the Legislature in 1979 in response to racial violence and harassment during court-ordered school busing, the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act authorizes the attorney general to seek injunctions that prohibit individuals from harassing or intimidating people based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, or disability.

The attorney general applies for the injunction in civil proceedings typically weeks after someone has been arrested by local police departments for bias-related crimes, which are prosecuted separately in criminal courts.

The underlying crimes range from civil rights offenses such as assault for purposes of intimidation to garden-variety charges of harassment in which police suspect that racism or bias were factors. Because the crimes can take months to prosecute, the injunctions are designed to safeguard victims in the meantime.

A violation of the civil rights injunction is a criminal offense punishable by up to 2 1/2 years in jail and a $5,000 fine. If bodily injury results, the violator faces up to 10 years in prison.

None of the 41 people against whom Coakley has obtained an injunction has violated it, according to her office.

Unlike restraining orders issued in domestic violence cases, the civil rights injunctions prohibit further intimidation or harassment of the victim, as well as any members of the minority group allegedly targeted.

Kelcie Cooke — coordinator of the violence recovery program at Fenway Health, which provides medical and mental health care to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people — said the nonprofit group has referred several victims of hate crimes to Coakley’s office for potential injunctions because her staff is “incredibly well informed about the issues that affect the GLBT community.’’

Not everyone supports civil rights injunctions.

Harvey Silverglate, a veteran Boston criminal defense lawyer and civil libertarian, said the injunctions smack of “political correctness’’ and were redundant because individuals were already being prosecuted for hate crimes or other offenses. If they commit additional crimes, he said, district attorneys should prosecute them for those, as well.

Several defense lawyers who represented clients in Superior Court civil hearings where Coakley argued for injunctions said privately that their clients were far more concerned about pending criminal charges and regarded the court orders as relatively trivial.

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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