New York's various harassment laws are pretty specific. They spell out what forms of intimidation, communications, threats, or physical contact — for example, shoving or slapping someone — are illegal.
But a proposed county law that would make it a misdemeanor to harass police officers, peace officers, and first responders contains no such detail. It says simply that a person faces up to a year in jail, up to a $5,000 fine, or both, if "he or she intentionally engages in conduct ... that intends to annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety of the police officer, peace officer or first responder."
The language in the proposed law is very broad compared to state harassment laws that are already on the books, so much so that a defense attorney questions whether it would survive a court challenge.
Mark Foti, a local criminal defense attorney, said state courts have repeatedly reviewed harassment laws to ensure that they pass "constitutional muster," and they've struck down several of them for being overly broad. Many of the laws were revised after they were enacted, he said.
Foti points to two cases in particular where harassment laws were invalidated by higher courts because they were vague and overly broad regarding the behavior they were intended to prohibit. Both cases dealt with verbal or online harassment.
Several state laws provide for felony charges when people assault officers or responders, or when people threaten them with weapons. The assault charges apply if the officer or responder was injured, the menacing charges apply if the officer felt a reasonable fear of injury or death.
Monroe County Republican Legislators Karla Boyce and Kara Halstead introduced the bill last week. The proposed law is intended to cover "hands on situations," Boyce said during a press conference. Does that include citizens who record police activity on video? A county Law Department representative who was at the press conference said no.
Boyce and Halstead said the law is meant to curb "disrespect and incivility" toward police officers, peace officers, and first responders.
"The disrespect that has been shown to our responders cannot be tolerated," Boyce said. Boyce is chair of the Legislature's Public Safety Committee.
The lawmakers referenced "recent events," including incidents downstate where police were doused with water, as the impetus for the proposed law.
The only local example they mentioned was an incident on I-390 where two EMT's responding to an apparent overdose were attacked by the two people they were checking on. One of the responders was bitten.
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office charged both people with assault, which is more serious than harassment.
The legislators' press conference, however, happened just days after Rochester Police Officer Denny Wright was stabbed in the head and seriously injured as he responded to a domestic disturbance. The man accused of stabbing Wright is facing attempted aggravated murder and aggravated assault of a police officer, both of which are felonies.
The Legislature has scheduled a public hearing for the law during its November 12 meeting. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. and will be held in the Legislature's chambers inside the County Office Building, 39 West Main Street.