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Washington State News

Critics Say Washington’s ‘Tattletale Hotline’ Bill Blurs Line Between Hate Crimes, Bias

TJ Martinell | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – A bill moving through the Washington state Senate would allow private citizens to report incidents of “hate crimes” or “bias incidents” to the State Attorney General’s Office, with the possibility of receiving up to $2,000 for a noncriminal incident.

Proponents say the proposal is intended to help victims of hate crimes, though critics have argued SB 5427 would instead create a “tattletale hotline” and undermine criminal investigations. 

“Spend five minutes on Twitter on any given day and I assure someone would say something offensive under this law that we could call a ‘hate crime’ and collect $2,000 from the attorney general,” Conservative Ladies of Washington Founder and President Julie Barrett told the Senate Ways and Means Committee at a Feb. 20 public hearing. “It potentially target[s] people for actions they don’t like, but are not actually hate crimes. In collaboration with bills like HB 1333, this would create sort of a ‘tattletale hotline’ to report people one doesn’t agree with or doesn’t like.”

While there is already a state definition of a “hate crime,” SB 5427 sponsored by Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, includes a definition of bias incident to mean “a person’s hostile expression of animus toward another person, relating to the other person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or mental, physical, or sensory disability.”

The bill also tasks the Washington attorney general with setting up a process to collect data reported for each incident.

Although it acknowledges bias incidents are “noncriminal,” the bill treats them in a similar manner as a hate crime, which is a Class C felony. The hotline would take calls for both, and law enforcement agencies are directed to refer people subject to both a hate crime and/or a bias incident to the hotline.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Stephen Paolini with the Anti-Defamation League told Ways and Means “our state needs an innovative response to addressing hate crimes and noncriminal bias incidents,” adding that it doesn’t alter the existing definition of a hate crime.

He also said that the up to $2,000 “is not a reward to people who report to the hotline” and is meant to cover damages incurred.

Critics noted the compensation program the bill would bring about would also be available for those who experienced a “perceived” bias incident, which would be determined by the person reporting the incident in which no law was violated.

Opponents of SB 5427 such as Legislative Counsel John Coleman for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression warned legislators at the Feb. 20 public hearing that the bill is unconstitutional due to the “threat it poses to free expression by chilling protected speech.”

“Bias incidents covers expression, not conduct,” he said, adding it “incentivizes people to report speech by financially awarding complaints.”

Also opposed were law enforcement groups like the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Policy Director James McMahan told Ways and Means that the proposal “may impede providing help to those who need help,” noting the Attorney General’s Office cannot enforce laws and the hotline would only be operational during weekdays.

“They cannot respond to reports of crime,” he said.

SB 5427 was scheduled for a committee vote on Feb. 23, but no action was taken. Its companion bill HB 1410 was referred to the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee, but never received a public hearing.