Article: Upstate County Criminalizes Behavior to “Annoy” the Police

Being annoying won’t do much to advance your popularity or social life, but in one upstate county, New Yorkers might go to jail for being annoying — if a person they’re annoying is working for the police force or other public safety organization.

Jailtime for Individuals Who Annoy Police Officers?

In Monroe County, which includes and surrounds Rochester, residents at least in theory run that risk, under a local law which took effect early in December 2019. The Anti-Annoyance Law forbids any action intended to “annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety” of any on-duty police officer, peace officer, or first responder.

The new offense, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and as much as a year’s imprisonment, or both, was portrayed by its backers as designed to prevent residents from harassing public safety forces while they’re on-duty responding to service calls.

The Anti-Annoyance Law drew criticism from some activists, and misgivings even from some local officials. Hotly debated when it cleared the 29-member county legislature by a 17-10 vote on November 12, the measure was authored and supported by Republican members of the Monroe County legislature.

Some opposition to the new enactment was procedural: it was raised as an “emergency” measure that allowed a vote on the passage without being considered by a legislative committee or affording many opportunities for public comment. The new law was passed on the same day as a mid-afternoon public hearing on it was held. Even law enforcement groups had little opportunity to share their views on the measure, opponents also claimed.

But the leading objection focused on the suspect unconstitutionality of the measure, especially the vagueness of the term “annoy.” Opponents argued it was too subjective, and so gave inadequate guidance on what behavior would run afoul of the new law. A regional ministers’ organization announced that fearing the new law would be used in discriminatory ways against minority group members, it was considering bringing a lawsuit against the new law.

Anti-Annoyance Law Shunned by the Force

While only the police chief in one Rochester suburb publicly voiced opposition to the measure before it was enacted, within a few days local law officials — including the county sheriff and the Rochester police chief — announced they had ordered their workers not to use the new law to arrest “annoying” persons. Similarly, the head of the county’s association of police chiefs said all members of his group agreed not to enforce the new law.

The Monroe County sheriff called the new law a solution “to a problem that does not exist,” since there were already ample state laws to deal with persons interfering with law enforcers. Many opponents predicted the new measure would be successfully challenged in court. The director of a regional chapter of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union claimed the measure probably infringes the First Amendment, by authorizing police officers to arrest crime suspects, witnesses or bystanders whose comments they dislike.

Other opponents of the anti-harassment measure, introduced just a week after about 75% of Rochester voters in the November elections approved a ballot measure authorizing the creation of an independent board to review complaints of city police misconduct, was intended to counter that action. With subpoena and disciplinary powers, the new board replaces a far weaker civilian review board.

About the Author

Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. You can contact Scott anytime. He is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round and your initial consultation is free.