LEGAL CONCERNS: Try to Maintain a Reasonable Perspective on Criminal?Assaults
Posted by Rick Wolff on May 26, 2013 ? Leave a Comment?
More Thoughts About the Role of Criminal Prosecutions in Preventing Assaults on Youth Sports Officials
By Doug Abrams
?After the recent fatal assault on youth soccer referee Ricardo Portillo in suburban Salt Lake City, last week?s column explained why legislation to criminalize assaults on sports officials remains unnecessary and potentially counter-productive. In every state, a wide array of general-application statutes already criminalizes assaults on any victim, including a sports official. The most effective approach is to enforce these general-application statutes in appropriate cases, and not to enact new statutes whose provisions would tend to duplicate existing law.
To help explain this conclusion, two themes mentioned in last week?s column deserve greater amplification here. First, I wrote that assaults on sports officials sometimes go unprosecuted because law enforcement authorities too often exercise discretion not to arrest, indict or prosecute an assailant.? Second, I suggested that more robust enforcement of criminal laws would likely deter some future assaults on officials. Here I discuss not only the likely reasons for this exercise of discretion, but also the criminal law?s potential for deterrence.?
To maintain proper perspective about antidotes to violence in youth sports, this column concludes with a timely reminder that criminal prosecution should be the last resort, not the first.? The most promising strategy for managing sporadic violence should be education and instruction conducted by youth leagues and interscholastic sports programs, prevention efforts that continue to show much success.??
Reluctance to Enforce
The April 27 assault on Mr. Portillo was unusual because the perpetrator was a player, and not an adult such as a parent or coach. Media reports suggest that nearly all assaults on referees and other officials are committed by adults.?
Prosecutors may resist indicting offending parents or coaches, or may negotiate plea bargains, because winning a conviction can be difficult. ?Except in rare instances when violence is caught on video, the parent or coach need only claim ?self-defense? (?The ref pushed me first?) or provocation (?The ref cussed at me first?) and the case may collapse. The offending adult may have eyewitness friends and allies willing to lie to law enforcement and, if necessary, commit perjury on the witness stand. The case can end as a stalemated ?he said-she said.?
Busy prosecutors also sense that adults charged with youth sports violence tend to make sympathetic defendants because they are usually first-time offenders who hold regular employment.? Aside from their inability sometimes to control themselves in games, they are the kind of people we would be pleased to have as next-door neighbors. Except perhaps where the injury is particularly serious, juries can be sympathetic to adults with clean records who appear contrite for an assault committed in the heat of the moment to defend the perceived interests of their children. And juries often respond to pleas that if the parent or coach lands in prison even briefly, the real loser would be the innocent child at home.
Even when prosecutors do secure a conviction or guilty plea, judges may impose only probation, community service, or some similar sentence that appears like a slap on the wrists. Without a prior criminal record, the defendant may present little likelihood of being a future threat to the community, and not the kind of violent criminal we tend to worry about most.
None of these reasons offers a suitable excuse for under-enforcement or leniency because prosecutors can prevail, and judges can impose meaningful sentences. When prosecutors believe in good faith that proof would support a conviction, they signal social disapproval as much by the charge as by the outcome.
Publicity about prosecutions for assaults on sports officials would likely deter some parents and coaches ? and perhaps many ? from similar behavior. ?In general, the likelihood of deterrence depends on two factors, the nature of the offense and the nature of the offender.
The nature of the offense, by itself, does not hold particular promise in youth leagues because publicized prosecutions are more likely to deter future premeditated crimes than future impulsive crimes of passion. Most assaults on sports officials fall into the second category because I have never heard of a parent or coach who woke up in the morning plotting to attack an official later that day. (Indeed, this lack of premeditation is reportedly what led the Salt Lake City prosecutor to charge Mr. Portillo?s assailant with homicide by assault rather than with murder or manslaughter.)? We cannot count on publicity about criminal prosecutions to deter the sort of unplanned, impulsive behavior that tends to characterize youth sports assaults.
The nature of the offender, however, holds more promise in youth leagues because prosecutions are more likely to deter people who think rationally than people who chronically lack self-control. Despite the usually impulsive nature of attacks on youth sports officials, I suspect that in places where prosecution is a real possibility, publicity does indeed encourage greater self-control in some parents and coaches.?
In youth sports, assaultive adults are normally family people who are trying to earn a living and raise their children, who make good neighbors until the game starts, and who value their jobs and their places in the community. They are not career criminals, and the youth league assault is typically their first brush with the law. Most of all, parents and coaches sense the embarrassment that indictment, prosecution and sentencing would cause them and their families. Word gets around.
Plan A: Adult Education in Youth Sports
As we discuss the criminal process after the Utah homicide, we should not lose perspective.? In youth sports as in other areas of American life, prevention efforts should be the primary anti-violence strategy. Criminal prosecution should be the last resort, reserved for the relatively few persons whose sporadic violence resists efforts to maintain basic standards of civility before anyone strikes a blow. Even with its potential to deter some future acts of violence, prosecution demonstrates breakdown and failure. Someone has already been victimized, and the families of the victim and the perpetrator may suffer life-changing dislocation from legal proceedings. ?
With pre-season parents meetings and generally effective printed materials, youth sports governing bodies and interscholastic sports leagues seek to prevent violence by emphasizing sportsmanship and mutual respect among competitors and their families.? From my years of coaching, I sense that these constructive educational initiatives can create local sports cultures that help insure that outbursts of violence against officials and others remain the exception rather than the rule. Most youth sports parents know right from wrong, and most tend toward civility when leagues, teams, and other parents and coaches lead the way.