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Attorneys urge Dinolfo, legislators to scrap pending harassment law 

Outgoing County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo is under increasing pressure to refrain from signing legislation that would prohibit harassment of police officers and other first responders.

The latest warning came from a group of highly regarded defense attorneys, who also urged legislators to withdraw the measure and police departments to publicly state that they won’t enforce it.

Last week, civil liberties and social justice groups called on Dinolfo to not sign the measure into law. Democratic legislators, including retired Rochester police chief James Sheppard and retired firefighter Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, have also spoken out against the pending law.
In a letter dated November 25 and distributed to Dinolfo and several other county and city officials, the attorneys objected to the measure, which they dubbed the “Annoyance Law.”

“If enacted, the bill will be challenged and stricken by the courts as unconstitutionally vague, overbroad, and violative of the First Amendment,” the letter reads. “The statute makes unlawful a range of clearly established First Amendment speech and conduct.”

The attorneys who signed the letter are:
  • Elliot Dolby Shields of Roth & Roth,
  • Rhian D. Jones, Brian Shiffrin, and Donald Thompson of Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin
  • Mark Foti and Jessica L. Naclerio of The Foti Law Firm
  • Christopher D. Thomas
There will be a required public hearing on the proposed law at 2 p.m. on December 2 in the County Legislature chambers inside the County Office Building, 39 West Main Street. Dinolfo still plans to sign the measure, said county spokesperson Jesse Sleezeer.

The attorneys' letter read like a litany of criticisms against the law, covering both legal issues and potential impacts on the community.

The law is not just vague and overly-broad, they argued, but it would also give the county a police authority that it hasn’t been specifically granted by the state. State courts have previously struck down laws on that basis.

As for the impacts on the community, the letter read, the law will create police policies that “counter the best practices and newest principles of policing, which seek de-escalation instead of penalization.”

They argued the law would also lead to unlawful arrests, stops, and searches of people; increase distrust of police because of their ability to arrest people for subjective criteria; and increase police officers’ discretionary authority “and intrusion into people’s lives.”

The law will likely have “greater detrimental impact on communities of color and poorer communities,” the letter read.
The pending law would make it illegal for a person to intentionally “annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety of” a police officer, peace officer, or other first responder. The penalty for doing so would be up to a year in jail, up to a $5,000 fine, or a combination of jail time and a fine.

The legislation was introduced by Republican legislators Karla Boyce and Kara Halstead, and passed solely on Republican votes.

Democratic legislators argued that the law was unnecessary, that it’s vagueness could lead to abuse by law enforcement, and that it could damage police-community relations.

A similar measure introduced by Broome County legislators has met with similar backlash there. Recently, nine people were arrested as they protested the legislation during a legislature meeting.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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