If you have watched the news in the past few months, you have most likely heard the term “hate crime” being used. This is a phrase that is often used injudiciously to describe any scuffle between people of different races or religions. Yet, the United States government has specific parameters that give a solid definition of “hate crime.”

What separates federal laws apart from many state laws, is that the national statutes specifically focus on physical violence. States may further add to this. For instance, in New Jersey there are laws preventing intimidation of another person based on specific factors. In both state and federal cases, a hate crime is one taken against another person because of their national origin, religion, disability or gender — including their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Federal law specifies the type of violence that constitutes a hate crime. The use of weapons, such as a gun or explosives, warrants a federal crime. But, simply beating someone with fists or feet may not. In addition, the victim or assailant must have crossed state or national borders either during or before the assault, or been on a national highway.

The punishments for federal hate crimes are severe. If the assault left the victim alive, the assailant could face up to 10 years in prison and hefty fines. If the victim dies due to the violence, or aggravated sexual abuse, kidnapping or attempted murder are involved, the aggressor could be looking at a life sentence in federal prison.

Anyone who has been charged with a hate crime should contact a criminal law attorney immediately. They may be able to fight the charges on your behalf.