A call from the State College community for stricter definitions of ethnic intimidation will likely not result in a change to borough laws, but could generate local pressure on Harrisburg legislators.
During the regular meeting of the Borough Council on June 20, shortly after the deadly nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., students advocated for the council to move hate crime legislation forward by pressing for protection for the LGBT community under the state ethnic intimidation law.
Under current state law, an individual can be charged with ethnic intimidation if he or she commits an offense “with malicious intention toward the race, color, religion or national origin of another individual or group of individuals,” according to a letter to council by borough solicitor Terry Williams.
Penn State students Anthony Zarzycki and Veronica Weyhrauch spoke to the council during public comments in June, pushing for an ordinance or legislation that would include sexual orientation or gender identity to be included in the definitions.
“This is an issue of common sense and human decency,” Weyhrauch, president of the Penn State College Democrats, said. “This is making sure that our community, family and friends are protected.”
According to Williams’ letter, municipalities can create criminal sanctions when there are violations of municipal ordinances that the municipality has the power to regulate, such as discrimination in zoning or housing. However, he said, local ordinances attempting to affect the Pennsylvania Crimes Code would likely suffer a constitutional challenge.
The borough would have the ability to enact a local ordinance creating a summary offense for ethnic intimidation crimes, Manager Tom Fountaine said, but the penalties would be less than those under state law aggravated assault charges.
“The local ordinance wouldn’t have the same penalties, but could be tailored to address the specific ethnic intimidation issues the audience raised,” Fountaine said. “There’s always a chance the (ordinance) could be challenged in court and ... be overturned.”
Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said she couldn’t see how layering another rule at the local level would make state law more efficient. Instead, she pushed to ensure that ethnic intimidation be a part of the local awareness, extending to police, the county district attorney and magisterial judges.
“Lets make a clear statement to the legislature that we want this as part of state law,” she said, “and let the criminal justice community know we want this to be an active part of safety and policing in the community.”
Fountaine suggested that staff could draft a formal resolution for council to adopt in a show of support for this issue. A resolution could be completed by August.