A judge has dropped the hate crime enhancements in the alleged assault case of a Filipino family, angering their supporters who have been working to get justice for the family for nearly a year.

After taking more than a week to deliberate the evidence, Judge Neetu S. Badhan-Smith resumed the preliminary hearing April 17 against suspect Nicholas Weber, who is accused of assaulting Gabriel and Nerissa Roque at a McDonald’s restaurant in North Hollywood.

Weber was charged with two felony batteries, both with hate crime enhancements. He pleaded not guilty last July.

On May 13, 2022, Nerissa and her daughter, Patricia, told police that, while waiting in the drive-thru, they were rear-ended. They said the other driver came up next to them, hurled racial slurs and drove off before coming back and threatening to kill them.

The pair called 911 and Gabriel, who arrived before police did. They allege that the driver pushed Gabriel to the ground, causing a broken rib, and wrapped his hands around Nerissa’s neck. A bystander helped to subdue the assailant before police arrived.

Tsukuru Fors, from the Neighborhood Safety Companions, expressing their outrage after a judge removed the hate crime enhancements in the alleged assault case of the Filipino Roque family. (G. Arizon/SFVS)

At the Tuesday hearing, the judge ruled that she would remove both hate crime enhancements, but Weber still faces both felony charges. Although she said the defendant made “offensive and vulgar statements” against the family, she said the incident was “a general intent crime.” 

She cited the time difference between the racial slurs being said and alleged assault, roughly 10-15 minutes, and that the defendant didn’t use more racial slurs after coming back. In addition, the defendant was seen on video — taken by Patricia — pushing a bystander before the alleged altercation with the Roques.

The defendant is scheduled for another arraignment on May 1. Afterwards, the case will go to trial.

A hate crime is defined as a crime against a person, group or property motivated by the victim’s real or perceived protected social group, which includes their race, nationality, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability and sexual orientation.

On the other hand, an action or behavior motivated by hate, but not deemed a crime — for one reason or another — is called a hate incident. These can include name calling, insults, displaying hate material on your property and distribution of hate materials with hate messages in public places.

At the end of the hearing, the mood among the crowd was somber as they exited the courtroom. But after reassembling outside, they voiced their frustrations, chanting, “Get it right the first time, that was a hate crime” and “No justice, no peace.”

For these supporters, the removal of the hate crime enhancements means that not only does Weber face a reduced sentence if convicted — each enhancement would’ve added up to an additional three years in prison — but as proof of how hard it is to get justice through the courts.

“The tragedy is that those few minutes were enough for them to say that wasn’t a hate crime, but the Roque family has to live for the rest of their lives knowing that they were assaulted because they were Asian,” Dominico Vega, a volunteer for the Filipino Migrant Center, said. “That’s unfair. … Because what we witnessed in there is not justice.”

It was not lost on Vega that May 1 is International Workers’ Day, saying that what happened in the courtroom was “the criminal neglect of migrant workers right in front of us.”

“We need to come back here — bigger, louder — on May 1 to show that we stand with the Roques,” Vega said. “We stand with all migrant workers … who face this violence on a day-to-day basis.”

Mantle Hi, who came from the San Gabriel Valley, said the court’s decision was “terrible, horrible [and] frustrating.”

“I’m really angry,” he said. “It’s [as if] they don’t take it seriously. They just brushed it off … and I think it’s just a pity.”

Jason Bautista, community and civic engagement associate at the Thai Community Development Center, said the nonprofit he serves is no stranger to Asian hate, and highlights the need for multiethnic, multiracial solidarity against white supremacy.

“As long as the issue of Asian hate continues to loom over in our community, we need to ensure we stand together in order to strategize … and pressure the state institutions to uphold justice in a timely manner, especially when we experienced pushback on the hate crime allegation today,” Bautista said.

He explained that language barriers and the difficulty of navigating the system prevent community members from speaking up when these incidents occur, in addition to a lack of resources that go directly towards hate crime victims.

“How can we expect our community to come up and report their traumatic experiences when we don’t have the means to help them immediately meet the financial need towards healing and upholding their rights?” Bautista asked.

For the members of the Roque family, they are still trying to process what happened in the courtroom. For the eldest son, Patrick, the removal of the hate crime enhancements was frustrating, but not surprising.

“I kind of expected this to happen,” he said. “It’s really disappointing how we’ve been treated so far and how the justice system has been treating this case when it’s really obvious that this is a hate crime. What more do we need? I think it’s really obvious from the video that it was a hate crime.”

Although the court’s decision was a setback to their case, Patrick tried to find the silver lining as well.

“I think today got me feeling excited also because with this, we can show a lot of people what’s really going on inside the courthouse and how we can really see the state treating working-class migrants like us,” Patrick said. “I think we’ve learned a lot of good lessons … after today.

“I just want to take this moment to encourage folks … to join your local community organization, even build your own community organization. We wouldn’t have been able to go this far without the support from the community, especially the organizations that have been involved in this campaign.”