NCAA Basketball

No hate crime charges filed against man who yelled racist slurs at Utah women's basketball team

The deputy attorney said there wasn't evidence suggesting that the man was threatening physical harm to the women or to their property

Players and staff on the Utah bench
AP Photo/Young Kwak, File

Players and staff on the Utah bench react toward the end of a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024. A northern Idaho prosecutor won’t bring hate crime charges against an 18-year-old accused of shouting a racial slur at members of the Utah women’s basketball team while the team was in Idaho to attend the NCAA Tournament.

A northern Idaho prosecutor won’t bring hate crime charges against an 18-year-old accused of shouting a racist slur at members of the Utah women’s basketball team during the NCAA Tournament.

The deputy attorney for the city of Coeur d’Alene made the announcement on Monday, writing in a charging decision document that though the use of the slur was “detestable” and “incredibly offensive,” there wasn't evidence suggesting that the man was threatening physical harm to the women or to their property. That means the conduct is protected by the First Amendment and can't be charged under Idaho's malicious harassment law, Ryan Hunter wrote.

The members of the University of Utah basketball team were staying at a Coeur d'Alene hotel in March as they competed at the NCAA Tournament in nearby Spokane, Washington. Team members were walking from a hotel to a restaurant when they said a truck drove up and the driver yelled a racist slur at the group. After the team left the restaurant, the same driver returned and was “reinforced by others,” revving their engines and yelling again at the players, said Tony Stewart, an official with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, during a news conference shortly after the event.

The encounters were so disturbing that they left the group concerned about their safety, Utah coach Lynne Roberts said a few days later.

Far-right extremists have maintained a presence in the region for years. In 2018, at least nine hate groups operated in the region of Spokane and northern Idaho, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We had several instances of some kind of racial hate crimes toward our program and (it was) incredibly upsetting for all of us,” Roberts said. “In our world, in athletics and in university settings, it’s shocking. There’s so much diversity on a college campus and so you’re just not exposed to that very often.”

University of Utah officials declined to comment about the prosecutor's decision on Wednesday.

In the document detailing the decision, Hunter said police interviewed nearly two dozen witnesses and pored over hours of surveillance video. Several credible witnesses described a racist slur being hurled at the group as they walked to dinner, but their descriptions of the vehicle and the person who shouted the slur varied, and police weren't able to hear any audio of the yelling on the surveillance tapes.

There also wasn’t any evidence to connect the encounter before the team arrived at the restaurant with what happened as they left, Hunter, wrote. Still, police were able to identify the occupants of a silver passenger vehicle involved in the second encounter, and one of them — an 18-year-old high school student — reportedly confessed to shouting a slur and an obscene statement at the group, Hunter said.

Prosecutors considered whether to bring three possible charges against the man — malicious harassment, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace — but decided they didn’t have enough evidence to support any of the three charges.

That’s because Idaho’s hate crime law only makes racial harassment a crime if it is done with the intent to either threaten or cause physical harm to a person or to their property. The man who shouted the slur told police he did it because he thought it would be funny, Hunter wrote.

“Setting aside the rank absurdity of that claim and the abjectly disgusting thought process required to believe it would be humorous to say something that abhorrent,” it undermines the premise that the man had the specific intent to intimidate and harass, Hunter wrote.

The hateful speech also didn't meet the requirements of Idaho's disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace laws, which are mainly about when and where noise or unruly behavior occurs. The slurs were shouted on a busy thoroughfare during the early evening hours, and so the noise level wasn't unusual for that time and place.

Hunter wrote that his office shares in the outrage sparked by the man's “abhorrently racist and misogynistic statement, and we join in unequivocally condemning that statement and the use of a racial slur in this case, or in any circumstance. However that cannot, under current law, form the basis for criminal prosecution in this case.”

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