New Jersey lawmakers are targeting a new breed of criminal activity, couched as a game, that has led to sometimes fatal assaults on innocent people.
Episodes of the “knockout game,” in which the goal is to render an unsuspecting victim unconscious with one blow, have drawn extensive media coverage in recent months.
In September, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office charged three teenage boys with killing a homeless man in Hoboken by punching him in the face.
And in December, federal prosecutors in Houston charged a 27-year-old white man who attacked a 79-year-old African-American man, allegedly based on race and color, recorded it on a cellphone and showed it to others.
Three New Jersey bills, filed on Dec. 16, address the level and punishment of such attacks, while a fourth, submitted on Dec. 20, would make it a separate crime to record and share knockout game attacks and other assaults.
One bill, A-4563, would establish the crime as a second-degree aggravated assault, punishable by five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000, or both.
The measure, sponsored by Assemblymen Joseph Cryan, D-Union, and Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, would apply if a person attempts “to cause significant bodily injury to another or causes significant bodily injury purposely or knowingly by a single punch, kick, or other singular striking motion for the sole purpose of bringing about the loss of consciousness of that other person.”
Under current law, an attack causing or attempting to cause significant bodily injury qualifies as a third-degree crime, carrying a three- to five-year term, a $15,000 fine, or both.
Cryan, also a Union County undersheriff, says the measure was prompted “by accounts of innocent folks walking down the street and being attacked in this manner.” He mentions the Hoboken case, in particular.
The other two bills would keep the crime as a third-degree offense, but single it out for different treatment from other aggravated assaults of that degree.
Both define the offense in language similar to the Cryan-Johnson bill as “attempting to cause or causing another to lose consciousness by a single punch, kick or other singular striking motion for the sole purpose of bringing about the loss of consciousness.”
A-4549, sponsored by Assemblymen Jon Bramnick, R-Union, and Ronald Dancer, R-Bergen, imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of one-third to one-half the time imposed.
That would mean at least one year without parole for the minimum sentence of three years.
Bramnick says a crime committed for enjoyment or kicks, purely to hurt someone, should be treated differently from a bar fight or something done in the heat of passion.
Penalties would also be ramped up under A-4558, introduced by Assemblymen John DeMaio, R-Somerset, Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, and Anthony Bucco, R-Morris.
When a knockout game is involved, it would eliminate the presumption of nonimprisonment accorded to first-time offenders convicted of third-degree aggravated assault, and allow juveniles older than 14 to be tried as adults.
If the offense is committed by someone knowingly involved in criminal street gang activity, it would be bumped up to a second-degree crime.
S-3126 would make it a third-degree crime of endangering an injured victim to film, photograph or otherwise record an act causing bodily injury for circulation, publication or distribution.
“The knockout game isn’t the first trendy crime that has spread because of the popularity of Internet videos showing the incidents,” said the sponsor, Sen. Thomas Kean, R-Union.
With the legislative session nearly over, there is little time to act on the bills.
Cryan says he has spoken with DeMaio, who is open to introducing a merged bill in the new session.
Bramnick says that would be fine with him, too.
State Police spokesman Lieut. Stephen Jones says he is not aware of any proven cases of the knockout game in New Jersey, noting that motivation is key but is not always clear.
Jones adds that the agency has been in contact with local, county and state law enforcement bodies “to try to get a better handle on whether it is a growing trend at this point.”
Darren Gelber, president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers-New Jersey, has not seen the bills but says removing sentencing discretion is “generally a very bad thing.
“I can’t think of many problems in our society that have been solved by forcing 14-year-olds to stand trial as if they were adults,” adds Gelber, of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Woodbridge.
“There is a great tendency today to try to cure society’s ills by enacting criminal legislation.”■