Federal Hate Crime Laws

Federal Hate Crime Law: Frequently Asked Questions
This resource is designed for informational purposes only.  It is not legal advice and is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. Please note that this resource is not exhaustive. Situations or inquiries may arise that are not answered below. In those circumstances, you may call 844-9-NO-HATE.


What is a hate crime or hate incident?

A hate crime is generally defined as a crime against a person or property that is motivated by bias, prejudice, or hatred toward the personal, or perceived personal, characteristics of a victim, including: race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.

A hate incident is based on the same behaviors and motivations as a hate crime, but does not rise to the level of a crime.  For example, you may be a victim of hate speech, which, depending on the circumstances, may not constitute a crime (and may be protected under the First Amendment), but which may constitute a hate incident.

I believe I was the victim of a hate crime or hate incident. What should I do?

If you think you may be a victim of a hate crime or hate incident, you should immediately take the following three steps:


For emergencies:

  • If you (or others) have been injured or fear for your safety, call 911 immediately.
  • If you are uncomfortable calling 911 or local law enforcement, consider calling the local United States Attorney, the local FBI Field Office, or the State Attorney General’s office to report the offense. Understand, however, that these authorities may not respond as quickly as local law enforcement responding to a 911 call.
  • Obtain medical attention if necessary.

For non-emergencies:

  • If a non-emergency, call or visit your local police station or federal law enforcement office as soon as possible to report the offense.
  • If you are not comfortable calling law enforcement, consider calling a trusted community or legal services organization. You can call 1-844-9-NO-HATE to be connected to a local organization.

Follow-up and key things to remember for both emergencies and non-emergencies:

  • Ensure that a police report is filed regarding the offense and obtain a copy of the report (which should include the responding officer’s name and badge number).
  • Request that the police report indicate that the offense may have been a hate crime or a hate incident.
  • File the report with local law enforcement, the State Attorney General’s office, and federal law enforcement.
  • For additional support and documentation, also report it to 844-9-NO HATE.


  • Preserve any evidence and take photographs of the evidence. For example, do not remove graffiti but instead, take photographs of the graffiti.  Do not delete electronic correspondence (e.g., text messages, emails, social media posts, etc.), including your own.  If you decide to involve law enforcement, you should preserve all evidence as directed by law enforcement.
  • Document the experience in writing as soon as possible after the offense, including any specific words used during the offense. Record all your thoughts.
  • Record any information you can remember about the perpetrator, including approximate age, height, weight, gender, race, clothing and any other distinguishing characteristics.
  • Obtain contact information (names, addresses, and telephone numbers) of any other victims or witnesses to the offense.


  • Find support in the community — through friends and family, victims’ organizations, advocacy or community groups, religious organizations, legal groups, professional counseling, etc.
  • Consider seeking legal representation.
  • Remember, you can always contact 1-844-9-NO-HATE.

Is there a federal hate crime law?

Yes. There are several federal statutes that may protect you if you are the victim of a hate crime. First and foremost, under The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, (HCPA) (18 U.S.C. § 249), a person commits a hate crime if he or she “willfully causes bodily injury” or “attempts to cause bodily injury using a dangerous weapon” because of his or her perceived or actual race, color, religion, or national origin. Moreover, the HCPA protects people who have been victims of a crime based on their actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability if that crime affects interstate or foreign commerce or the crime occurs within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.

Note: If the offense does not result in death, the statute of limitations for bringing a claim is seven years. If the offense does result in death, there is no statute of limitations for bringing a claim.

Another federal law that may protect you from a hate related incident is 42 U.S.C. § 3631 (relating to criminal interference with the right to fair housing). Under this federal law, a person commits a crime if he or she uses or threatens to use force in order to interfere with another person’s right to fair housing based on the victim’s race, color religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin.

You might also be protected under 18 U.S.C. § 245, Federally Protected Activities, if a person through force or threat of force “injures, intimidates or interferes with” another person based on his or her race, color, religion or national origin and because he was engaged in a federally protected activity (i.e. enrolling in a public school, serving as a juror, traveling across state lines, etc.).

In addition, the Damage to Religious Property, Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247, prohibits the intentional defacement, damage or destruction of real property because of the religious nature of the property, where the crime affects interstate or foreign commerce, or because of the race, color, or ethnic characteristics of the people associated with the property.  The statute also makes it a crime to intentionally obstruct by force, or threat of force, any person in the enjoyment of that person’s free exercise of religious beliefs.

Furthermore, 18 U.S.C. § 241, the Conspiracy Against Rights, makes it unlawful for two or more persons to conspire to injure, threaten, or intimidate a person in any state, territory, or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured by the Constitution or federal law.

Finally, the 2016 U.S. Sentencing Guidelines §3A1.1. (Hate Crime Motivation or Vulnerable Victim) provides a sentencing enhancement if the court finds “beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or any property as the object of the offense” based on the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.”

Who is protected under federal hate crime law?

The HCPA protects any person who is the victim of a crime because of his or her actual or perceived:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Religion;
  • National origin;
  • Gender;
  • Sexual orientation; or
  • Gender Identity; 

Note: Other statutes mentioned under Question 3 may not cover all of the above protected categories. However, federal law pertaining to Fair Housing (42 U.S.C. § 3631) uniquely includes familial status as a protected category, but excludes sexual orientation and gender identity.

Someone damaged my property and it appears to have been motivated by bias, prejudice, or hatred against a certain social group. What are the relevant federal laws?

As explained below, federal law creates protections for religious property (i.e. a place of worship).  Other damage to property may be criminalized under your state’s law.

Under Conspiracy Against Rights, 18 U.S.C. § 241, it is unlawful for two or more people to threaten or intimidate another person from freely exercising any right or privilege of the Constitution or laws of the United States. In addition to this, the United States Sentencing Commission Guideline creates a penalty enhancement if the person committing an offense targets any person or any property based on the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.

Please check your state’s specific FAQ for more information. State FAQs can be found on our website (www.8449nohate.org).

Someone defaced my place of worship or otherwise interfered with my religious practice. What does federal law say about protecting religious groups from hate motivated acts?

If someone defaces your place of worship or interferes with your religious practice, you might find protection under 18 U.S.C. § 247 (relating to damage to religious property). Under this federal law, if a person “intentionally defaces, damages, or destroys” any religious property because of the religious character of that property or because of the race, color, or ethnic characteristics of an individual associated with the religious property, or if a person intentionally prevents a person by force or threat of force from freely exercising his or her religious beliefs, then that person violates the statute. Under this law, the actions of the person defacing your place of worship must also affect interstate commerce.

You might also be protected under 18 U.S.C. § 248, which prohibits a person from intimidating or interfering with a person exercising his or her right of religious freedom at his or her place of worship. The statute also prohibits intentional damage or destruction to a place of worship.

The government is not investigating my case or bringing a lawsuit. How can I get in touch with an attorney with the government to discuss my case?

You can contact your State Attorney General’s Office of Victims’ Services; your local District Attorney’s Victim/Witness Program, or the United States Attorney’s Office Victim/Witness Assistance Program in your district listing online. You can also contact the Department of Justice office of the Attorney General’s Victim Notification Program at (202)-514-2000. You can contact the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, at (202) 514-4609. You can also contact the Stop Hate Hotline at 1-844-9-NO-HATE.

I would like to explore bringing a case with a private attorney against the perpetrator (known as a “civil case”). Are there federal civil laws relevant to hate crimes or hate incidents?

42 U.S.C. Section 1981 protects every person’s right to “make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property.” If this right is violated, then you may bring a civil lawsuit. Please note: such claims are limited by a four year statute of limitations.

42 U.S.C. Section 1982 protects every individual’s equal right to “inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property.” There is no statute of limitations barring such claims.

42 U.S.C. Section 1985 (3): Conspiracy to deprive any person or class of persons of equal protection under the law: creates civil liability on a person who attempts to deprive an individual or class of individuals of equal protection of the laws. The victim may recover damages.

42 U.S.C. Section 1986 supplements the protection set out in Section 1985. A person may bring a civil suit against a person who had knowledge of “any of the wrongs conspired to be done, and mentioned in section 1985.” The statute of limitation on this action is one year.

A person may bring a civil lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. Section 3617 against a person who coerces, threatens or interferes with the rights prescribed in the Fair Housing Act mentioned above..

Lastly, 42 U.S.C. Section 13981 (Violence Against Women Act of 1994) creates a civil cause of action against anyone who “commits a crime of violence motivated by gender.”

Where can I find additional information or get help?

If you would like additional information or need help, please visit the Communities Against Hate resource page at www.communitiesagainsthate.org.  If the information you are seeking is not on the resource page or if you need immediate help, please contact 1-844-9-NO-HATE.