Supporters say the current law focuses on crowd control but not the individual safety of officials. The new legislation would change that.

Hurting a sports official in Hawaii already is a crime. But state legislators are mulling whether it should be an even more serious one.

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House Bill 264 would make harmful actions toward an official a class-C felony instead of a misdemeanor as it is now.

A class C felony is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison compared to a misdemeanor which could result in a maximum of one year.

Tom Yoshida, president of the Hawaii State Basketball Officials Association, said this bill builds upon a previous step aimed at venue oversight. A law passed in 2020 allows the courts to bar spectators who cause harm from the same type of event for a year to life, depending on the offense.

Yoshida called the new bill “a next step in the progression of assault legislation among officials.”

From an official’s perspective, he said that the current law focuses on the venue and crowd control efforts but does not acknowledge concerns for the individual safety of the officials. The new bill directs charges to be filed against the person who committed assault or a similar crime that harmed the official. 

A bill being considered by the Hawaii Legislature would stiffen the penalties against people who harm sports officials. (Courtesy: McKinley High School)

The goal of the legislation is to decrease negative fan behavior.

“There is no question that the elevation of verbal abuse to officials has sort of been much more prevalent I would say in the last four to five years,” Yoshida said. “The atmosphere has become much more hostile.” 

Such bad behavior affects the basketball association, he said, because people who get abused by unruly parents do not want to continue officiating or never start doing this kind of service in the first place because of what they observe and hear on the sidelines. 

“It has always been a struggle to recruit officials,” Yoshida said, adding that has led to games being canceled because of the lack of available referees.  

“If we don’t have officials, we will not have games,” Yoshida said. “And if we do not have games, we lose an important educational component.”

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This bill also would help to express society’s appreciation and respect for officials by showing them that they are considered valuable and giving more weight to what they do, Yoshida said.

The state’s Office of the Public Defender testified against this bill, saying that increasing the punishment in these cases would do little to stop the crime at the moment. These crimes typically are emotional responses, not carefully thought-out plots, the office wrote, so this bill may not limit harm to sports officials. 

Rep. Andrew Garrett, who also serves as a softball umpire, argued that the bill would deter attacks on officials by increasing the penalty for such actions.

“Part of the reason people don’t get into officiating is because of the concern about the poor behavior of coaches and parents, and spectators,” he said.

“This is just a measure to put an extra layer of protection to try to keep them safe to make sure they can fulfill their duties without fear of any outside interference,” said Rep. Daniel Holt, who introduced the bill. “I feel like we do have a good chance to help out our officials with this measure this year.”

The measure is headed to a conference committee where lawmakers will try to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions. 

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