Classifying an offense as a hate crime can sometimes be tricky, experts said, because authorities have to determine the state of mind of those charged and consider the circumstances of the crime.

Details of the Sunday attack by three Hispanic men on a black man in Roosevelt, released Monday, paint a picture of a murky legal scenario in which police said there was little doubt that a "hateful act" with racially charged language took place.

But there was no evidence the assault happened because the victim, Daryl Jackson, is black.

"It underscores the difficulty of the hate crimes statute, trying to get into people's heads and seeing their motivation," said Eugene O'Donnell, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in Manhattan. "Certainly when you get into fights and assaults, it's often hard to know what motivates people."

State law defines a hate crime as an offense "committed or intended to be committed in whole or in substantial part" because of the victim's membership in a protected class like race or religion.

Nassau Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey said that even though Jose Miguel Vargas told police that racial epithets were used during the assault on Jackson, evidence shows Vargas and the three other Hispanic men attacked Jackson, whom police said panhandles in the area, to get him off their property.

To file hate crime charges against Vargas, his brother Persio Vargas, his nephew Kelvin Vargas and Juan Nunez, a New York City police officer, Mulvey said, "a witness would have to come forward and say, 'I heard a discussion at the deli like, let's get this black man.' "

Mulvey added, however, that "the door is open" for hate crime charges to be added later. Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice is investigating the attack, said her spokesman, Eric Phillips.

Det. Sgt. Gary Shapiro, Nassau Police's bias crime coordinator, said the use of racial epithets alone does not make an attack a hate crime. "It depends on how the whole thing happens," he said.

Suffolk officials declined to elaborate on how they decide what is a hate crime. Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer issued a statement saying "Something that is obviously a hateful act may or may not be able to be classified as a hate crime under the narrow wording of the state hate crimes law."

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