MONTPELIER — A state senator says he doesn’t want a bill targeted at hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents to turn the state into “the thought police.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee discussed a bill Tuesday that was presented last month by Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan. The committee was expected to vote the bill out of committee, but that will likely wait until Thursday because the committee wants to a hear more testimony.

The bill would create a working group to establish a system of uniform reporting of biased-motivated incidents and require minimum training standards for law enforcement for hate crimes and bias incidents. It would require the attorney general’s office to give the legislature an annual report on hate crimes and bias incidents as well.

When Donovan presented the bill, he said “hate is pervasive in this country,” and addressing hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents is a top priority for his office. The bill came shortly after Donovan’s office investigated the racial harassment that former legislator Kiah Morris endured, which she said led to her not seeking re-election last November. Morris was the state’s only black female member of the House.

Donovan previously said that while the racism Morris faced was offensive, the speech was protected by the First Amendment and did not rise to the level of a crime.

The bill would allow the attorney general’s office to treat reports of bias-motivated incidents how it does those of unfair acts in commerce: The office would investigate incidents where a crime has not been reported but the incident was motivated by bias, be it racial, religious or otherwise. It would be able to fine those accused of engaging in bias-motivated incidents up to $5,000 and issue injunctions against the offender.

The committee has made some tweaks to the bill already. It added language to charge the working group to protect the constitutional rights of those involved in such incidents. It also included provisions requiring the group to consult with the Human Rights Commission, the state branches of the NAACP, the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools, Vermont Interfaith Action, the Vermont chapter of the ACLU and any other entities the group deems appropriate.

The working group will then define “bias incidents” for law enforcement purposes and develop best practices for police when responding to such calls. It will also establish a method to standardize the system of reporting those incidents and develop appropriate training for law enforcement on bias incident response, reporting and coding.

Much of the talk from the committee Tuesday focused on protecting constitutional rights. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the committee, said he didn’t want the state to turn into “the thought police.” Sears said legislators need to keep in mind constitutionally protected free speech when crafting this bill.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

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