Hugh McQuaid Photo
Rep. Joe Verrengia (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Legislation aimed at discouraging the “knockout game” cleared the Judiciary Committee on Monday over opposition from lawmakers who say the unprovoked attacks addressed in the bill are not a problem in Connecticut.

The bill, which passed 31-10, would apply in criminal cases where an attacker strikes someone in the head without provocation and with the intent of knocking them unconscious. The legislation makes that attack a Class D felony with a mandatory two-year sentence. It also requires juvenile courts to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds accused of the crime to the adult criminal justice system.

It’s an attempt to curb something often called the “knockout game,” or the practice of sucker punching a stranger for entertainment.

“Often this cowardly act is without warning and is unprovoked,” Rep. Joe Verrengia, a West Hartford Democrat who proposed the bill, said. “This language attempts to capture that sort of assault.”

But opponents contend the bill is unnecessary because the attacks rarely happen. The issue is made more controversial based on the fact that the examples of the crime most often cited are almost always instances of interracial violence.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“I’m not sure we have information indicating that the knockout game 1, was a real problem in this state and 2, is an ongoing problem in this state,” Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said.

Verrengia said it was difficult to determine how many of the attacks have occurred when he was asked Monday if there was any evidence suggesting that a large number have been committed by 16- or 17-year-old offenders.

“I tried to wrap my arms around it, I tried to get statistics, but it’s very difficult to do so by virtue of the present reporting requirements by various law enforcement agencies,” he said. “. . . I think if you were to ask [victims] how many assaults have there been throughout the state of Connecticut, they would say, ‘One too many.’”

Critics say the legislation is also in conflict with the approach the state has taken to criminal justice policy in recent years. It creates a new mandatory sentence requirement even as policymakers have sought to reduce mandatory punishments.

During the meeting, Rep. Pat Dillon, D-New Haven, urged her colleagues to table the bill.

“I’m looking at a bill with a minimum mandatory and language with a mandatory transfer to adult — I don’t know what language will fix that. I’m concerned about that. It goes against everything we’ve been doing for six years in this building,” she said.

Opponents of the legislation also contend that the attacks described in the bill already are punishable in the state’s laws regarding assault.

But Verrengia said he was seeking to make the victims of unprovoked attacks a protected class similar to how the law treats victims who are handicapped, pregnant, or blind.

“Although the victims in this case may not be legally blind, they are certainly blindsided by this sort of attack,” Verrengia said. “. . . I believe it warrants that sort of penalty.”

Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she understood the concerns of opponents but agreed that the crime should come with a more severe penalty.

“This isn’t kids just playing around having fun. Although they think that’s what it is because they’ve decided it’s a ‘game.’ But there are people who have lost — pregnant women who have lost children because of it,” she said. “At the very least, if this sends a message to these kids that think this is funny, I think we’ve done our job.”