Xiarhos testimony in favor of legislation to provide additional protection against assault and battery

Submitted to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary – May 16, 2023

May 16, 2023

Hon. James B. Eldridge, Senate Chair
Joint Committee on the Judiciary
The State House, Room 511-C
Boston, MA 02133

Hon. Michael S. Day, House Chair
Joint Committee on the Judiciary
The State House, Room 136
Boston, MA 02133

Re:  Testimony in Support of House Bills 1823 and 1825

Dear Senator Eldridge and Representative Day:

I write to testify in support of the passage of House Bill 1825, An Act relative to enhanced penalties for those who commit assault and battery against school sports officials, and House Bill 1823, An Act relative to assault and battery against healthcare personnel, school officials, and first responders. I am proud to be the sponsor of both of these bills.

I believe these bills are necessary and appropriate to fix loopholes in existing law regarding the crime of assault and battery against people who serve the public as first responders, school officials, nurses, or school sports officials, and police dogs. I strongly believe these people deserve added legal protection by providing police enhanced power of arrest with regard to crimes committed against them, as well as additional penalties for crimes committed against them.

Under Massachusetts law the crime of assault and battery is governed by Section 13A of Chapter 265 of the General Laws. Under this statute, assault and battery is classified as a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 ½ years in a house of correction or by a fine of not more than $1,000.

Because assault and battery is classified as a misdemeanor, police officers in the Commonwealth do not have the power of arrest unless the crime involved a breach of the peace, or if it was committed in the presence or view of the officer, or if it was still continuing at the time of the arrest or only interrupted, so that the offense and the arrest formed parts of one transaction. See Commonwealth v. Mekalian, 346 Mass. 496 (1963) and Commonwealth v. Gorman, 288 Mass. 294 (1934).

In recent years the Legislature has recognized that the punishment for assault and battery and the lack of the power of arrest is insufficient to address certain situations. With that in mind, the Legislature has given police the power of arrest without a warrant for assault and battery committed against a family or household member or in violation of a restraining order (Section 28 of Chapter 276). The Legislature also has enhanced penalties for assault and battery resulting in serious bodily injury, or committed against pregnant women or victims of domestic abuse (Section 13A of Chapter 265). Likewise, the Legislature has enhanced the penalty for assault and battery against a police officer or a public employee while such person is engaged in the performance of their official duties (Section 13D of Chapter 265).

While these recent changes are welcome to help address assault and battery against certain classes of vulnerable individuals, they are still insufficient to safeguard certain other individuals who deserve enhanced protection because of the nature of their professional work.

One of the areas where this is most apparent, sadly, is with regard to assault and battery committed against school sports officials. We have all seen the headlines about referees and other officials at school sporting events who have been the victims of intimidation, verbal abuse, and in some cases assault and battery while the course of their work. The most recent notable case of this crime occurred in late December in Cohasset, where police allege that a high school basketball referee was punched in the face by a 17-year-old player during a game.

These sorts of cases highlight two deficiencies with existing law. First, police often lack the power of arrest in cases of assault and battery against school sports officials because those officials are not full-time employees (they either volunteer their time or work as part-time independent contractors) and therefore do not fall under the protections of Section 13D of Chapter 265. Second, the existing penalties for assault and battery are not sufficient to deter these crimes, and are not parallel to the enhanced penalties afforded to cases of similar assault against similarly-situated full-time public employees.

House Bill 1825 would fix this loophole in existing law by clarifying that the enhanced protections of Section 13D of Chapter 265 would apply to any person who serves as a referee, umpire, linesman, timer or scorer, or who serves in a similar capacity, while working, supervising or administering a sports event, including but not limited to a school sports event, and who is registered as a member of a local, state, regional, or national organization that is engaged in providing education and training to sports officials, and regardless of whether such a person serves as a volunteer, independent contractor, or contract employee. According to information available from the National Association of Sports Officials, this language is similar to legislation that has been adopted by several other states and which is being considered in several other state legislatures this session.

Sports officials are not the only ones who should be afforded enhanced protection under the law. House Bill 1823 seeks to add to the list of protected persons set forth in Section 13A of Chapter 265. The intent of this bill is to apply enhanced penalties to assault and battery committed against: (1) any first responder; (2) any teacher, school librarian, school adjustment counselor, school nurse, school social worker or school psychologist in any public school; (3) a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse, (4) a person serving as a referee or other official of a school athletic event, or (5) a police dog, all while actively engaged in the performance of their respective professional duties. Under these new provisions, assault and battery committed against any of these individuals would be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than 5 years or in the house of correction for not more than 2 ½ years, or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment. It is important to note that existing provisions of Section 13A would not be changed for those already protected by law.

As a former police officer and Deputy Police Chief, I believe these enhanced penalties and power of arrest are just and reasonable to protect people who actively serve the public and who, by the nature of their professional work, place themselves in a vulnerable and dangerous position each and every day. I believe the Legislature should do everything within its power to make sure that crimes against these individuals are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and that those found guilty of these offenses are punished with appropriate consideration of the seriousness of the crime they committed.

It is for these reasons that I respectfully encourage the Joint Committee on the Judiciary to issue a favorable report on House Bills 1823 and 1825 and to recommend them for passage by the Legislature this session.

Thank you for your consideration of these important pieces of legislation.

/s/ Steven G. Xiarhos
State Representative (R – 5th Barnstable)