Defrauding the Elderly: A Crime, For Sure, But a Hate Crime?

Criminals love the elderly.  They see older individuals as easy marks, and often they are.  Elderly citizens adopt individuals who are only interested in plundering their bank accounts.  They lend money to people who quickly disappear as soon as the checks clear.  Preying on the elderly is a crime of longstanding vintage.  But what’s new, here, is treating defrauding the elderly as a hate crime.  You are no doubt scratching your head—a hate crime, really?  Well, the Queens District Attorney thinks so.  Prosecutors in Queens have pursued hate crime charges against individuals accused of defrauding older Americans.  The New York law in question requires prosecutors to prove that a crime was committed “because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability, or sexual orientation of a person.”  The Queens DA’s Office reasons that the statute covers cases involving the targeting of the elderly for fraud even though the defendants clearly relish their victims because the statute only requires proof that the defendant committed the crime because of some belief about the protected group, rather than a bigoted one.

As the New York Times notes, this interpretation seems difficult to reconcile with the statute’s opening language, which clearly focuses on hate.  The statute reads: “Crimes motivated by invidious hatred toward particular groups not only harm individual victims but send a powerful message of intolerance and discrimination to all members of the group to which the victim belongs.”  That language conveys the classic justification for antidiscrimination laws:  bias-motivated conduct deepens, and widens the net of, the harm suffered due to its demeaning and stigmatizing message. 

To be sure, prosecutors will point to the statute’s plain language in any challenge to its enforcement in these circumstances.  Perhaps that will be enough for reviewing courts.  But really shouldn’t we ask whether targeting an elderly person because they are easy to deceive truly constitutes a hate crime, at least in the way that we understand antidiscrimination law?  Steven Freeman of the Anti-Defamation League argues that using the statute in this way will “dilute its power.”  Indeed.  Using hate crime laws to address cases where defendants are motivated by something other than hate undermines the law’s expressive power.  Hate laws send the message that bias-motivated conduct is wrong and harmful because of the shame and feelings of inferiority that targeted individuals and non-targeted members of their groups feel.  Of course, some elderly individuals may feel embarrassment when hearing that other elderly individuals have been taken  advantage of, but not because people hate and think they are less worthy due to their age.  Elderly individuals with no resources to steal may feel no embarrassment, at least in the way that hate crimes law envisions.  Using the hate crimes law in this way may generate a backlash if prosecutors continue to use this hate crimes law in this way.  Let’s say a prosecutor brings hate crime charges against a greedy son who defrauds his elderly mother because he believes she is more vulnerable given her advanced age.  Recall Brooke Astor and the mess involving her son who allegedly skimped on her care to ensure that he received more money after her death.  Is that really a hate crime?  Will people then view hate crimes as ridiculous?

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. clerk says:

    Who is the “we” that should be asking this question? It seems to me it should be taken up with the legislature rather than the district attorney. It seems plausible enough that a person defrauding an old person does so “because of a belief or perception regarding the… age” of the elderly person. It’s hard to fault a prosecutor for prosecuting a troubling and disturbing crime consistent with a reasonable reading of the plain language of a statute. And it’s the DA’s responsibility to worry about that community’s interest in law enforcement and prosecuting criminals — I’m not sure whose responsibility it is or should be to worry about diluting the expressive power of a category of criminal statute, but I don’t think it’s a prosecutor’s.

  2. Jack Chin says:

    In Arizona, that the victim is over 65 is an aggravating circumstance for all crimes. There’s no requirement of proof that the defendant thought anything about it one way or the other. In practice, it adds time if the defendant targeted an elderly victim with dementia or who was otherwise vulnerable, but not, for example, if a car thief stole a new Mercedes from the parking lot of a mall that happened to be owned by a senior citizen. I agree that the NY statute is unnecessarily convoluted.

  3. AYY says:

    Clerk, I think the “we” in the post refers to the defense attorney and the courts. I think the point of the post is that if there’s some mechanism in NY to strike the hate crime allegation before trial then the defense should try to do so for the reasons stated in the post.

  4. T.E. says:

    my sister had scammed my mom and stepdad, my mom passed feb,2011 and my stepdad had passed May 2011…mom was to possibly come home from the nursing rehab on a couple months meanwhile my sister moved herself into a house that my stepdad paid all the bills and my sister drained his bank account on a monthly basis,it all started Dec,2010…. then my mom never came home because she passed on Feb,10th,2011, I then went to my moms funeral and my sister then attacks me the morning after the funeral just because her dog vomited on the staircase and I warned her husband so he would not step in it (then her plan to alienate me was in motion)she then attacked me and cut my face up multible times with her rings on her fingers from stiking me many times…then she told me to get out of my parents home that my stepdad was renting…I told her that it was thier home and I had flown over 1200 miles to attend moms funeral and she had no right to tell me to leave, then she attacked me again, I told her i would call the police and when i told her that my uncle had seen that i was bleeding from multiple spots on my face and she wouldgo to jail for battery, she then proceeded to hit her head on the stairwell wood banister to say she had lumps on her head from me (I had witnesses that I never raised my hand to her)then I went to my aunts to stay till my scheduled plane to Florida flew out about 3 days later..before I left I went to say goodbye to my stepdad and then I found out he had been in a nursing home for 2 months prior to my moms death all the while my sister draining all
    his money out of his bank account and he tells me that all he had was $37 since he went in the nursing home and he still had $36 left but if I could please tell him where all his money went,he then went on to inform me that my sister told him that I withdrew all his money(but, I did not, I was in Florida and had no bank card and the bank would have record of my sister taking money out at her disposal.I then tried to call him when I returned home and realized my sister blocked my number and calls from him recieving them…then 3 months later I happen to find out over the internet that my stepdad’s funeral was scheduled the next day (and this was a week and a half after he had passed. well my sister was in florida for her daughters high school graduation and i hear she told the nursing home to put him on ice till she got back to pennsylvannia and she would handle things then..(all the while she never called me to inform me of my stepdads passing… I then checked his bank accounts and noticed the pattern of her withdrawals of all his money each month since she arrived in pennsylvannia… she not only took every cent out of his account each month, but continued to withdraw his retirement money for months even after he had passed…. I have not heard from her and she had sinced moved to a unknown place back in Florida which i have just found out it to be in Scottsmoore Fla.. but I do no know the address as of yet…My mom always wanted for her and I to share her estate but my sister had told my stepdad that I took his moneys and he should change his insurance policy to her…I know she had forced him to do whatever it took for her to take everything from them…I do not know how to go about doing whats right and her returning the overpayments she collected in goverment checks and righting the wrong she did by taking over $100,000 of his insurance policy…and over $21,000 from his bank accounts……who and where do I contact to right this wrong she had caused….my mom did not want this to happen and I want to make sure she can rest in peace….been 10 months and no reply from my sister as to what she did and why…HELP!