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Groups ask Dinolfo not to sign first responder harassment law


A pending county law that would make it illegal to annoy, alarm, or threaten a police officer is sitting on Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo’s desk, awaiting her signature.

The Rev. Lewis Stewart said a pending law making it a misdemeanor to annoy, alarm, or threaten a police officer is "a ridiculous and reprehensible piece of legislation" that "tramples on First Amendment rights." - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • The Rev. Lewis Stewart said a pending law making it a misdemeanor to annoy, alarm, or threaten a police officer is "a ridiculous and reprehensible piece of legislation" that "tramples on First Amendment rights."
But there’s a growing call for her to refrain. By the day, the measure is getting more attention — mostly from people pointing out its flaws, how much damage it could do, and how it is likely that a court would strike it down.

On Friday, a coalition of civil liberties and social justice organizations blasted the bill, called on Dinolfo to not sign it, and urged the public to attend a meeting of the County Legislature on December 10 to speak out against it. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the County Office Building.

“It is a ridiculous and reprehensible piece of legislation,” the Rev. Lewis Stewart, a longtime police reform activist and president of United Christian Leadership Ministry, said.

Stewart laid out criticisms that mirrored those of defense attorneys, Democratic county legislators, former first responders, First Amendment advocates, and others who’ve decried the legislation, which passed with only Republican votes.

Under the unsigned law, a person would face 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."
Stewart said the law is broad, vague, and reactionary, and that it “tramples on First Amendment rights.” Existing laws already allow officers to arrest anyone who is threatening their safety or hindering their ability to do their jobs

What may annoy a law enforcement officer may be perfectly legal, Stewart noted, using the example of civilians who record police activity with a mobile phone or someone who questions officers they believe are acting “beyond the scope of just and legal police procedure.”
Courts have consistently upheld the right of civilian bystanders to record or question police officers in public while they are performing their duties - as long as the recording or questioning does not obstruct police activity.

“It will cause further division and strife between members of the community and police officers,” Stewart said.

Similar legislation proposed elsewhere in the state has also provoked public backlash.

Thursday night, protesters packed the Broome County Legislature’s chambers to oppose the Emergency Responders Protection Act, which also has a clause prohibiting conduct that “intends to annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety of the” responder.

The protestors said they were concerned about the use of the word “annoy,” the potential for officers to misuse the law, and the law’s potential to limit First Amendment rights, according to the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin.

Nine of the protesters were arrested and charged with some combination of disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, and resisting arrest.

Representatives of several of the groups also punched back at law enforcement officials who, on Thursday, called on the governor to delay bail reforms and some other criminal justice reforms going into effect on January 1.

The officials pushed narratives that the reforms could harm community safety and that they impinge opportunities to help people with substance abuse disorders.

They’ve also said that new requirements around providing evidence to defendants could be burdensome.
Stevie Vargas, an organizer with Citizen Action, wasn’t buying it.

“Police and prosecutors are tasked with upholding the law, not undermining it,” Vargas said.

Iman Abid, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Genesee Valley Chapter, said the call to delay the reforms undermines the communities those officials represent, many members of whom supported the changes.

County Legislator Vince Felder, a Democrat from Rochester, argued that law enforcement has been using bail as a tool to boost conviction rates. When people can’t afford bail they sit in jail for days, weeks, or even months, increasing the likelihood that they’ll take a plea deal just to get out. Under current laws, they can take that plea before they even see the evidence against them — after January 1, prosecutors will have to turn over evidence before any plea offer expires.

Bail is not supposed to be punitive. By definition, it is an incentive intended to ensure that defendants appear in court for their trial and pre-trial hearings.

“The purpose of bail is not to keep people off the street,” Felder said.