Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham explained that, simply, there are differences in federal and state laws. With a state hate crimes law, local law enforcement personnel — police, investigators, first responders, prosecutors — would have the ability and authority to investigate an alleged hate crime.

“What is happening in Savannah is a perfect example,” Graham said. “The police authorities there didn’t feel they had the authority to investigate this at the local level.”

If Georgia had its own hate crime law that included sexual orientation and gender identity, there would be more training directed at the local level to investigate potential anti-LGBT crimes, he said.

“They would have the weight of state law behind them and criteria could be set on a local level,” he said.

An important criteria of the federal hate crimes law that would not be necessary for a state law is the “interstate commerce” clause, said Greg Nevins, supervising senior staff attorney in the Southern Regional Office of Lambda Legal based in Atlanta.

A very clear example of meeting the interstate commerce clause would be if a person in Augusta, Ga., calls a friend in South Carolina and says, “Hey, come to town so we can beat up a bunch of queers,” Nevins explained.

“As the body of case law gets more established, these kinds of cases will become easier to try,” Nevins said. “But right now that is a box the feds have to check off that the state would not.”

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