St. Cloud Republican Jim Knoblach quietly sabotages hate crime bill

A woman busted Asma Jama's lip for speaking Swahili at a Coon Rapids Applebee's, but couldn't be charged with a hate crime.

A woman busted Asma Jama's lip for speaking Swahili at a Coon Rapids Applebee's, but couldn't be charged with a hate crime.

Last fall, Asma Jama was speaking Swahili with her family at a Coon Rapids Applebee’s while waiting for her food. A nearby diner, Jodie Burchard-Risch, took it as a personal slight that Jama wasn’t speaking the tongue of America, English. So she smashed Jama’s face with a beer mug, according to police.

Burchard-Risch was charged with third-degree assault. She escaped an additional hate crime charge, however, because Minnesota technically doesn’t have a hate crime law.

If a misdemeanor is considered to have been motivated by bias against the victim’s race, sexual preference, sex, or religion, the charge gets bumped up to a gross misdemeanor. Hateful gross misdemeanors get bumped to felonies. On felonies, hate has no effect.

This legislative session, Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) and Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL- Brooklyn Center) carried bills that would increase the penalty on bias-motivated felony assaults by 25 percent.

It had bipartisan support in both bodies of the legislature. The chair of the public safety committee, Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center),  wouldn't give it a hearing, but members of the House voted 76-52 to include it in the public safety budget bill. Two days later, the full Senate passed it as well, 40-19.

The fairly noncontroversial matter seemed certain to pass into law. But an unexpected intervention by Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud) has put it at risk.

Knoblach heads the House committee that makes sure the final House public safety bill matches the language of the Senate's version, so everyone's on the same page. Over the last few days, Knoblach locked in all the public safety bills that both bodies of the legislature had already agreed to pass, in order to simplify which ones remained open for negotiation. The bias bill should have been included. It wasn’t.

“I don’t know what his motivation is, but I’m very frustrated that what seems to be a very simple matter is being treated that way," says Senator Latz. "It seems to me that it’s a no-brainer to enhance felony assaults as well when they’ve got the same bias motivation."

The bill last came up for discussion Sunday night. At the time, Latz says he tried to convince Knoblach to secure its place in the public safety bill.

Knoblach said he wouldn’t do it because there had been a staffing error that left off the word “religion” in the House version, Latz recalls. It wasn’t verbatim identical to the Senate version, so Knoblach wasn’t willing to accept it.

An inadvertent error like that could be fixed within 30 seconds if Knoblach would just make a motion to adopt the Senate language, says Latz. 

Now Knoblach and his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul), are waiting on the larger public safety deal to be brokered. It’s possible that Knoblach’s committee might still include the bias bill, but most of the pieces in the public safety bill have already been settled.

The legislature adjourns on Monday.

Knoblach could not be reached for comment.