Black man in Pennsylvania charged with hate crime for calling cops 'gestapo'
Chicago Police Officers photographed in riot gear (Steve Stearns, Flickr Creative Commons)

Hate crime statutes are designed to hold people accountable for violence or intimidation based on a victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In Pennsylvania, they've been misused to curtail the free speech rights of people of color when they're arrested by police.

The Appeal reports that when 52-year-old Robbie Sanderson was arrested for theft in Crafton, Pennsylvania, he called the police “Nazis,” “skinheads” and “Gestapo.”

According to an affidavit of probable cause, he was charged with a hate crime.

“This is completely ridiculous,” Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told the Appeal. “This is not what the hate crime statute was for. This is criminalizing pure speech and that violates the First Amendment.”

The Appeal highlights other cases: a woman who said “death to all you white bitches” as she was being arrested and a man who called an officer "Gandhi motherfucker" during a welfare check at his home.

“What you have is police officers essentially punishing people for disrespect to police officers by adding on criminal charges,” Roper told the Appeal. “And that’s just inappropriate. The things they are saying are deeply offensive, but they are not criminal.”

According to the Pennsylvania state human relations commission, "In Pennsylvania, a hate crime is defined as a criminal act motivated by ill will or hatred towards a victim’s race, color, religion or national origin."

It's not clear why insulting cops would fit under that statute.