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Port: Fargo's hate-crime ordinance produces zero convictions in the first year

The one time the law has been used, in a community that, we were assured, was ripe with bias crimes, it has resulted in months of court work into a man allegedly saying something ugly during a bar fight.

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Avalon Fyreheart stands near Fargo City Hall after the Fargo City Commission hate crime ordinance vote on Monday, June 28, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — Almost a year ago, Fargo became the first jurisdiction in North Dakota to implement a policy specifically punishing hate crimes.

Proponents of the law argued that it would deter crimes motivated by animus toward things such as race or sexual orientation, but in the year since the city commission acted, the ordinance has resulted in precisely zero convictions, according to a city of Fargo spokesman.

Grand Forks became North Dakota's second community with a hate-crime policy, though it only went into effect in late March .

There is one case pending under Fargo's policy. In February, city prosecutors filed a hate-crime charge against a man from Lake Park, Minnesota, who allegedly used a homophobic slur during a fight outside a Fargo bar.

The resisting arrest charge, a class B misdemeanor, was settled back in December with a guilty plea, but the charge under the hate-crime ordinance lingers (the latest hearing in the matter is scheduled for July 5 per court records ).

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Kirk Wesley Jensen charges
Entries from North Dakota's online criminal records database related to the only criminal case (as of June 20, 2022) in which Fargo's hate-crime ordinance has been used since it was created.
Screenshot

The incident took place in October.

The hate-crime charge was filed in December, the day after the resisting arrest conviction was completed.

Six months later, there is still no resolution to this class B misdemeanor charge that carries with it a $1,500 penalty.

The rhetoric used in the political debate around hate-crime policies led us to believe that, once instituted, these laws would result in Klansman and Neo-Nazis getting their comeuppance.

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The reality is that the one time the law has been used, in a community that, we were assured, was ripe with bias crimes, it has resulted in months of court work into a man allegedly saying something ugly during a bar fight.

This is why you aren't likely to see many politicians or activists commemorating the first anniversary of Fargo's policy.

I'm not sure how anyone can argue that it's a success.

The argument people like me make against hate-crime policies is that they're pointless.

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Even if we set aside the important questions about what they mean for fundamentally American principles such as free speech — these laws essentially make it illegal to express bigotry while committing an act that is already a crime — they do not achieve what their supporters say they will.

They're symbolic pablum passed by grandstanding politicians to appease noisy activists that, at best, seldom get used and, at worse, make otherwise straightforward criminal convictions more difficult.

Last week the city of Bismarck declined to become North Dakota's third community with a hate-crime ordinance.

Can you blame them, given the lack of evidence that Fargo's ordinance was worth the time and effort that went into creating it?

This isn't really a Fargo problem. Various jurisdictions have been implementing hate-crime policies for decades, and there's little evidence that they work. "The idea that a hate crime perpetrator will really refrain from harming another person due to enhanced penalties is inconclusive because there is no substantial, reliable evidence to prove these theories," concludes a 2016 paper published in the Pace Law Review .

Policymakers, at all levels of government, should focus on making laws that work and not pandering.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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