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Elizabeth City police are investigating possible hate crime enhancements to felony and misdemeanor charges against a woman who drove her car through protesters on Monday night.
The driver, a white woman named Lisa Michelle O’Quinn, hit two Black women and one white cyclist, according to the police statement and videos uploaded to Twitter. The victims were on the road “peacefully protesting and exercising their constitutional rights,” according to the police, during a protest against the local district attorney’s decision not to charge Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies in the shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr.
None of the protesters suffered life-threatening injuries, though the two women were taken to a nearby hospital. One of the women, Valerie Lindsey, said she is bruised on her leg and side and is on crutches.
Video of the incident shows O’Quinn hitting Lindsey with the car’s front right bumper and knocking her to the ground. Lindsey is briefly shown walking at the end of the video.
Shortly after, a call went out over the police scanner: “Can you get me EMS sent … by the Cook Out? I got a female that was just hit by a vehicle.”
Protesters have taken to Elizabeth City’s streets almost every night, usually between 5 and 9 p.m., since April 21 when sheriff’s deputies shot Brown while attempting to serve arrest and search warrants.
Lindsey said she protested one night in the first few weeks after Brown was killed. On May 18, District Attorney Andrew Womble announced he would not bring charges against the deputies.
“When they announced that the murder was justified,” Lindsey said, “I’ve been out there every night since that day.”
Hate crime law in NC
North Carolina law does not have a stand-alone criminal charge for hate crimes. Instead, prosecutors can seek penalty enhancements for misdemeanors and felonies that were committed “because of the victim’s race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin.”
Though the police department said it is investigating and will “present facts and findings” related to the hate crime penalty enhancements, no guarantee exists the district attorney’s office will use them in its prosecution.
Unlike other crimes, a prosecutor must show intent to prove a hate crime, meaning that the police would have to find evidence that O’Quinn drove through protesters specifically, in this case, because of their race.
That can be difficult to prove, according to Jamie Markham, a professor and expert in criminal sentencing at the UNC School of Government.
“Obviously, the gold standard would be admission to it,” Markham said. “But you’d have to be able to prove ultimately to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the person did it for those reasons.”
O’Quinn faces two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill by the use of a motor vehicle and two driving-related misdemeanors. These charges were applied upon arrest and are not necessarily the same charges that will be pursued by the district attorney’s office, which has its own discretion.
Neither the Elizabeth City Police Department nor Womble’s office replied to emails and phone calls for this story.
If Womble’s office pursues the hate crime penalty enhancements, it could make the misdemeanor charges more severe. If Womble’s office can prove the hate crime, the felony charges would become “aggravated” and would add about 20% to the sentence length, Markham said.
But these enhancements are rarely used. Only 3%-4% of all felonies are “aggravated,” Markham said, and that’s for all possible reasons, not just a hate crime motivation.
O’Quinn is being held in jail on a $40,000 secured bond. If the case goes to trial, it could take about a year before it is brought in front of the Pasquotank County Superior Court, Markham said, due to how rarely that court is held.
Prosecuting a hate crime in North Carolina
Tension has been high in Elizabeth City over the last five weeks of protests.
But the larger context of the situation in Elizabeth City may not be admitted into evidence should a hate crime be charged. When proving a hate crime, only evidence specific to the incident and the defendant can be brought in court, according to Kami Chavis, law professor and vice provost at the Wake Forest School of Law.
To some online commentators, the motivation of a white driver hitting Black people protesting police violence seems apparent, but the court of law and the court of public opinion have different standards for evidence, Chavis said.
“What’s in our public perception is not necessarily going to be deemed relevant in a court of law,” she said, adding that it will be up to a judge to decide what evidence is admissible in court.
Without an admission of intent, law enforcement departments seeking to prove a hate crime can turn to statements made just before a crime, to statements made online or engagement with extremist groups, Chavis said.
O’Quinn’s Facebook page was removed by Tuesday afternoon. Law enforcement could include content from that page in its facts and findings about a possible hate crime to the district attorney’s office.
Since hate crimes are enhancements and not stand-alone charges in North Carolina, the prosecutor’s office would first have to prove O’Quinn committed other crimes.
For the felonies O’Quinn faces, the first step to figure out is who started the altercation, Chavis said.
“Who’s the aggressor — that’s what you’re always looking at when talking about criminal law,” she said.
The incident occurred just after 6:45 p.m., when protesters were walking north on one of Elizabeth City’s main roads, Ehringhaus Street. Police were escorting protesters in the front and back but were not blocking side streets. One officer was blocking Griffin Street, where O’Quinn was parked, but pulled forward as protesters approached.
One video posted to Twitter starts nine seconds before O’Quinn hits Lindsey and another protester, Michelle Morris. They and other protesters were exchanging words with O’Quinn, Lindsey said. The comments cannot be heard on video. Lindsey has not described specific threats or epithets from O’Quinn, though she said O’Quinn used broadly threatening language.
These kinds of exchanges, though often unpleasant, are protected by the First Amendment, Chavis said. A prosecutor looks for who made the first physical move that could put others in danger, she said.
The video shows O’Quinn drive toward the protesters, slow down briefly while protesters in the car’s path bang on the hood of the car, then drive through them.
A series of videos from another protester shows O’Quinn driving past several other protesters before being cut off by a protester on a bicycle, whom she hit but did not knock over. Protesters then surrounded O’Quinn’s car and police intervened, the videos show. O’Quinn then drove farther before being stopped and arrested.
Hate crime reporting
Per the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, a national data reporting system, law enforcement agencies across the state reported 140 hate crimes to the FBI in 2019, the most reported to the FBI in a single year in the available data back to 1996. No hate crimes were reported to the federal government by Elizabeth City or Pasquotank County from 2015-19, the most recent five years of available data.
In 2019, participating law enforcement agencies across the country reported a total of 7,314 hate crime incidents to the FBI, affecting 8,812 victims.
But these numbers are almost certainly vast undercounts, according to research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which “collects data on nonfatal crimes both reported and not reported to police.” The bureau’s National Crime Victimization Survey estimated 250,000 hate crimes on average in the United States per year from 2004-15.
Barriers exist to reporting hate crimes at every stage, Chavis said, from people reporting hate crimes to law enforcement investigating the crimes to being able to prove the motivation for the crimes and successful prosecution.
Hate crime reporting is also voluntary, she said, and many law enforcement agencies do not report their numbers to the FBI.
Reporting and prosecuting hate crimes is important, Chavis said. For one, it can act as a deterrent against similar acts, she said.
Due to their nature, hate crimes also impact more people than the specific victims of the offense.
“When you have a crime based on this type of bias, the crime reverberates throughout the entire community,” Chavis said. “I mean, I can imagine that, with the tension and the events in Elizabeth City, that Black residents are on edge.”