NEWPORT BEACH — Brian Levin's vigilance is born of an unanswered question.
"When I was little I would ask my dad, 'Why did they let (the Holocaust) happen to Jews?' I never got an answer," said the 30-year-old Newport Beach attorney and national hate crimes expert.
Levin has devoted much of his life in a fight against hate crimes, regularly flying around the country to consult with law enforcement agencies and to testify at congressional hearings.
One question he has helped to answer is the number of reported hate crimes in the United States in 1993. Levin worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to generate the national hate crimes report, released in June, which totaled the number at 7,684.
The FBI defines a hate crime as a criminal offense against a person or property that is motivated by the offender's bias against the victim's race, religion, ethnic group or sexual orientation.
Levin will fly east at his own expense Monday to make sure the 200-person town of Ovett, Miss., doesn't push the national hate-crime statistics any higher. Two politically active lesbians who have established a food bank and reading programs in the small town have been receiving threatening phone calls and last year found a dead dog hanging from their mailbox. Levin will urge a congressional subcommittee, convening in Jackson, to strengthen hate-crime laws.
"Why would they be driven out of town other than rank bigotry?" Levin said. "The government has been powerless to protect them because the laws are so bad."
Levin's legal diligence in advocating stiffer sentences for hate crimes, which has included meetings with U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and writing briefs for landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, has earned him a nationwide reputation in the relatively new and controversial field.
Larry Vigil, an aide to U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), consulted Levin for weeks in formulating the Hate Crimes Penalty Enhancement Bill. Tacked on to President Clinton's national crime bill, the measure would increase prison sentences for hate-crime offenders by as much as one-third. The bill still requires House and Senate approval.
"Brian was very, very helpful. He knows his stuff cold," Vigil said. "He's a wealth of information."
Levin's credibility didn't come easily, he said, partly because of his youth and his unusual legal fee: no charge. Initially, people would refuse to talk to him and he became accustomed to hearing phones slam.
"When you do it for free, they either think you're a moron, you're no good or there's something wrong with you."
Levin's job as a business litigator pays for his avocation. He also is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a former New York cop.
A particularly proud moment came in June, 1993, when he contributed a brief to a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices unanimously upheld a Wisconsin state law that imposed harsher sentences for hate-crime offenders.
"What was at stake was every single hate-crime law on the books," Levin said. "It was great to be a part of the team."
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, there is far from universal acclaim for hate-crime legislation. Opponents argue victims, in effect, receive "special treatment" simply because of their minority status. Critics assert the law should punish the action, not the thought behind it.
Levin counters that the law frequently makes distinctions based on motivations. Further, hate crimes tend to be far more violent than other offenses, he said. For example, a robber may repeatedly strike a victim until he gets the wallet. Hate-crime perpetrators have no such tangible goal and often mete out savage beatings, Levin said.
Moreover, Levin maintains hate-crime offenders deserve longer sentences because their crimes refuse to recognize the humanity of their victims.
"There's nothing you can do, because it's who you are," Levin said. "What are you supposed to do? Stop being gay? Stop being black? Stop being Jewish?"
At age 7, Levin was a victim of a hate crime when a group of kids in a Bronx neighborhood attacked him because he was Jewish.
"I remember them saying, 'Here's a Jew.' And they pounded me," Levin said.
Levin's passion has had its reward; he relishes the occasions when hate-crime offenders are brought to justice.
"These people are cowards," he said. "That's when I love to see them, in court. They aren't with their buddies, and it's a whole new ballgame then."