A Missoula resident pleaded not guilty to a racially motivated assault in Missoula County Justice Court last week, bringing to light a rarely used charge in Missoula.
Susan Lafriniere used racial slurs during several encounters with an African-American man in her neighborhood beginning in 2013, according to the affidavit. In 2014, Lafriniere allegedly ran at the man, bumped her chest into him, yelled racial slurs and demanded he leave the premise.
City Attorney Jim Nugent, who started working in Missoula in 1975, says he can't remember a case quite like this one. "I cannot recall prolonged multiple encounters like this since I've worked as a city prosecutor," he says. "We forwarded it to the county attorney because the conduct was so bad."
Lafriniere, born in 1947, is charged with a misdemeanor assault. On June 3, 2014, the victim went to Lafriniere's neighbors' house to do landscaping work. According to the affidavit, Lafriniere saw the victim go into her neighbors' house, at which point she ran over and yelled at him to get out because he was "defiling the house with his presence." The victim asked her to leave him alone, but Lafriniere allegedly continued to call him racial slurs.
In addition to the misdemeanor charge, Lafriniere is subject to a sentence enhancement of two to 10 years in the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings for an offense committed because of a racial bias. Montana established the hate crime statute in 1989.
She remains free pending trial, as long as she complies with the conditions of her release, including no contact with the victim and his family.
Since 2008, Missoula County has reported 49 racially motivated offenses, according to the Montana Board of Crime Control. The board says racially motivated offenses are the most commonly reported hate crimes, surpassing those involving religion, ethnicity/nationality, sexual orientation and disability. Montana has seen a total of 286 hate crimes reported statewide between 2008 and 2013.
Rachel Carroll-Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, says hate crimes are often under-reported because some people may not be aware of the 1989 statute. She adds that collecting accurate data can be challenging because some people believe reporting can place a target on them. "However, we believe there's safety in numbers, and it's important to come together on the issue of hate crimes," she says.
Lafriniere's pretrial hearing is scheduled for May 10.
This story was updated April 16