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Attorney gives legal opinion on Monroe County 'annoyance bill'

Charles Molineaux
Created: December 02, 2019 11:36 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Community groups threatened demonstrations and legal action against a newly signed controversial Monroe County law to protect emergency responders from threats and harassment.

"We will certainly challenge it in court,” Rev. Lewis Stewart, president of the United Christian Leadership Ministry, said. “That's a fact. That's a promise.”

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The Monroe County Legislature approved the law in October and County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo signed the law Monday evening following a public hearing at the legislature. That hearing drew angry comments inside the legislative chambers and loud protest outside on Main Street.

“It is unconstitutional,” Stewart said. “It is racist. It tramples on the first amendment.”

“This is a stupid, unconstitutional political stunt,” Bill Destler, former president of R.I.T. said.

The “Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer or First Responder in Monroe County” law bans conduct that is deliberately threatening, harassing or annoying to responders performing their official duties.

“As we look at our quality of life and our strength and our community,” Dinolfo said, “I think it’s important that we support our first responders who are coming to our homes as firefighters, as volunteer ambulance personnel or as law-enforcement.”

Attorney Mark Foti said the language of the law was vague, violating the constitutional right to due process by allowing highly subjective decisions about what would be a violation, and violating the right to free speech.

"If somebody finds your actions annoying, you could be charged with a crime and punish up to a year in jail,” Foti said. “That may be allowed in other countries. But that doesn't exist in the United States. The Constitution lays that out in the very first amendment."

“The latitude given is akin to Jim Crowe era rationalization for arrests and criminalization,” activist Myra Brown with Spiritus Christi Church said.

Foti predicted the law would be overturned in court because, he said, extremely similar measures had already been declared unconstitutional in the past by the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court. 

He said a challenge could come once someone is criminally prosecuted for violating the law and challenges it as unconstitutional.

“I, for sure, will go to jail because of this law, if you’re talking about annoying the police,” Ashley Gantt with the New York Civil Liberties Union said during Monday’s hearing.

Or, Foti added, a challenge could be initiated by activists or communities in civil court.  

“Various townships in Monroe County, various communities, including religious communities, various legal communities have all said that this is something that should not exist on the books in Monroe County,” he said. “That it does not exist anywhere else in New York State. It does not really exist anywhere else in the United States and, ultimately, it’s something that needs to be reviewed and if it is reviewed I suspect it will be found unconstitutional.“

A representative for Monroe County offered no response to the possibility of a challenge saying that the county doesn’t comment on existing litigation and certainly won’t talk about hypothetical lawsuits that haven’t been filed yet.


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