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Oklahoma not OK - State Senate tries to opt out of federal hate crimes law
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Oklahoma not OK - State Senate tries to opt out of federal hate crimes law

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Oklahoma's state Senate tried to opt out of federal hate crimes laws with a measure passed on March 10.

Republican Sen. Steve Russell's amendment to SB 1965 - which had been a routine education bill - made significant changes to Oklahoma's hate crimes laws and would make it impossible for the U.S. Justice Department to intervene in hate crimes cases.

SB 1965 had been intended to create a task force to study the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association.

After Russell's amendment, it now requires that evidence collected during state hate crimes investigations not ending in convictions be destroyed or held by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

Russell said the amendment is meant to prevent federal law enforcement officials from taking over a case and applying different standards when local law enforcement has already investigated a case.

He added that hate crimes should be prosecuted by local officials and not the federal government.

"We just don't want the pendulum to swing too far the other way," Russell said. "This protects people to do or say whatever they want, as long as it complies with local ordinances."

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act passed last year authorizes the U.S. Justice Department to intervene in hate crimes cases involving sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The Justice Department was already authorized to investigate cases involving race, color, religion, or national origin.

The new law has been used by the FBI to monitor a murder investigation in Puerto Rico and a rape case in Big Bend, Texas.

Federal law enforcement officials would typically base their investigations on evidence collected locally, so destroying the evidence or holding it under the jurisdiction of a state agency would effectively stymie federal intervention.

Russell has made it clear that he objects to federal protections for LGBT people.

"The law is very vague to begin with," Russell said. "Sexual orientation is a very vague word that could be extended to extremes like necrophilia."

"The federal government should not be creating a special class of people, and that is just what they did when they passed and signed this bill," he added. "All crimes against another person have some level of hate in them, and people can be assured that our laws that protect people against crimes such as murder are sufficient to protect everyone."

According to The Oklahoman newspaper, only a few senators questioned Russell about his amendment.

One senator who did, Democratic Sen. John Sparks, said the measure could make it difficult for district attorneys to comply.

"This is putting district attorneys in a position to break the law," Sparks said. "They could be guilty of obstruction of justice if the federal government requests evidence and they don't turn it over. This language has all sorts of ramifications."

The amended bill passed 39-6 and goes on to the state House of Representatives.

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