Law & the Courts

New York County Passes Bill That Could Jail People if They ‘Annoy’ a Cop

NYPD officers stand guard at the scene of a shooting near Penn Station in Manhattan in 2015. (File photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Although this bill may have good intentions, Monroe County should not adopt it.

This week, the Monroe County legislature in upstate New York approved a bill that would make it illegal to “annoy” a police officer or first responder — and violators could face up to a year in jail.

According to local news source WROC, the legislature passed the bill 17-10 on Tuesday night. Whether or not it will actually become law remains to be seen, however, because, according to the Associated Press, the county’s executive plans to hold a public hearing on the bill before deciding whether to approve it.

The bill would make “harassment” of a police officer, peace officer, or first responder a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. It defines “harassment” as “conduct . . . that intends to annoy, alarm or threaten.”

Not surprisingly, the legislation has proven controversial. Karla Boyce, a Republican legislator who helped draft the bill, said she believed that passing the law was “the right thing” to do “to protect” law enforcement.

“We know that our law enforcement does have discretion when they are going to charge somebody with a crime. This law will be no different than that,” Boyce said, according to WROC. “They will have the discretion to use this or not.”

According to the AP, a news release on the proposal also mentioned the recent incidents of NYPD officers being doused with water.

Not everyone, however, is convinced. As Vince Felder, a Democratic legislator, told WROC:

“What constitutes annoyance? I mean I get annoyed several times a day. Is that criminal? So it’s really a dangerous road to go down when you start creating subjective criteria to arrest people.”

“There are enough laws, state laws, on the book to protect police officers from assault, from harassment and really you don’t need this law and I think it’s just pandering to somebody,” he continued.

Honestly? I tend to agree with Felder. To be clear, that is not to say that I condone police officers being attacked with water. That’s horrific, for sure, and should be illegal.

My issue, rather, is with the word “annoy.” As a general rule, I don’t like to see laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people based on a sort of subjective standard. After all, like Felder, I also find myself getting annoyed more than once throughout the day — and what’s more, I myself am incredibly annoying. Sure, it may not be my intent to be this way, but honestly, many of those who know me best would probably tell you that I am often, in fact, so annoying that people who don’t know me well might think that I must be doing it on purpose. If this law were to pass, I probably wouldn’t be safe in Monroe County without risking incarceration.

Of course, I do understand Boyce’s point that officers would use this only at their “discretion” — which I took to mean as her suggesting that people would only actually be arrested under this law if what they were doing was truly egregious. The thing is, though, that doesn’t really make me feel better about it. I will never, ever support a law that could clearly lead to an abuse of power just because of some lip service assuring me that it won’t be used that way. To me, that’s not enough.

What’s more, even if no officer ever did abuse it, there could still be negative consequences for Monroe County citizens just because it exists. Think about it: With a law like this in place, people might be hesitant to take advantage of some of their rights in criminal-justice situations — such as videotaping officers or asking them for their badge numbers — out of fear that officers might determine that they were being purposefully annoying and arrest them.

Although this bill may have good intentions, Monroe County should not adopt it. After all, it would be just plain wrong for an inmate to ever be able to honestly answer the question “What are you in for?” with “Being annoying.”

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