Assaulting referees could become a felony

May 8—Out-of-control sports fans who attack island referees, umpires and other athletic officials would be guilty of second-degree felony assault under a bill that the Legislature sent to Gov. Josh Green.

Out-of-control sports fans who attack island referees, umpires and other athletic officials would be guilty of second-degree felony assault under a bill that the Legislature sent to Gov. Josh Green.

Anyone convicted of the new crime of "intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to a sports official " also could be barred from attending "any sports event " that their victims were involved in for a year to life.

The latest version of House Bill 264 amends Hawaii's existing laws regarding assaults on first responders, educators, prison guards and others to include new language for sports officials.

"The court may order, in the court's discretion, that the defendant, in addition to any other punishment ... be enjoined from attending any sports event of the type at which the sports official was engaged in the lawful discharge of the sports official's duties for a period of up to twelve months from the date of sentencing for a first offense, and for life for a second or subsequent offense, " according to HB 264.

The bill was widely supported, with high school athletes and referees testifying that they have witnessed escalating verbal abuse and physical attacks by Hawaii fans and even by coaches while high schools and recreational leagues struggle to attract officials.

Schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi wrote in support of HB 264, "There is a nationwide crisis concerning a shortage of high school officials. Hawaii is not immune to this crisis. Although there are several factors responsible for this shortage, unruly spectators and fans are a major factor for the shortage, especially when there are threats made to cause bodily harm and assaults on officials. ... The Department (of Education ) is committed to affording student-athletes with a positive and safe high school athletic experience and without officials for the contests, the opportunities would not be possible. We hope that this legislation will deter negative behavior from spectators and fans to allow for our student-athletes to continue to have a positive athletic experience."

The bill was opposed by the state Office of Public Defender, which wrote in testimony : "The Office of the Public Defender has consistently opposed the creation of special victim classes that elevate criminal liability. In the past, the legislature has elevated those individuals that, due to their employment, are in positions that have required more protection, and recently elevated those seeking protection from domestic violence. Currently, the ever-growing list includes correctional workers, educational workers, emergency medical services providers, workers at mental health facilities, fighter (sic ) fighters or water safety officers, workers at health care facilities, home health care workers, and hospital case management workers. ...

"Even if the individual possesses the correct and accurate information regarding the severity of offense, often times, in the heat of the moment, criminal offenses are committed without deliberation or insight. The reality is that H.B. No. 264 may have little to no effect on deterring assaults on sports officials."

But support was overwhelming.

Thomas Yoshida, president of the Hawaii State Basketball Officials Association, wrote that he was working a game in 2006 when a spectator "came off the stands, on to the floor and hit the official. That spectator was subsequently arrested but was not convicted of this crime. The assaulted official is no longer working any games and soon left the islands for the mainland."

Mark Massey, a wrestling official for 22 years, wrote in testimony that he has "been physically struck by a parent, followed to my vehicle and threatened, " and witnessed other officials assaulted, including two who were attacked by coaches.

Ahryanna McGuirk, a volleyball player at Kalaheo High School, wrote in testimony that over the years she has witnessed "acts of abuse towards the sports officials who referee games from the elementary to collegiate levels. This abuse takes many forms, from verbal threatening to physical assault before, during, or after a game."

"In Hawai 'i, our pool of youth sports officials is already rapidly declining because referees do not feel safe in their role, " McGuirk wrote. "This is a major issue because without officials, there can be no sports. From the perspective of a high school student, it would be heartbreaking to see athletic games canceled, risking students' athletic scholarship opportunities and hindering community building on school campuses, due to the lack of referees."

Parker Bode, captain of the Honolulu Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division, wrote in testimony that sports officials "are tasked with making split-second decisions in objectively judging contests. Consequently, they should perform their difficult duties without fear of injury. This bill serves as a deterrent and message that assaults against sports officials will not be tolerated."

Akira Usami, a Hawaii "basketball official, " addressed fan behavior and its effect on Hawaii's growing shortage of sports officials.

"Fan behavior grows more aggressive and more violent every year and videos of fans creating a melee on the playing court while their children are playing the game circulate throughout social media, " he wrote in testimony. "I strongly support the passage of this bill to discourage fans from maintaining this aggressive posture towards sports officials and furthermore to ensure that our children continue to have officials available to officiate their games. If the trend is not reversed, it may reach the point where games are canceled due to lack of officials. Please keep that from happening and let our children continue to enjoy competitive sports."