Governor Andrew Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo (AP/Mike Groll)

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law Wednesday bills that he said would aid efforts to combat domestic violence by refining New York’s stalking and aggravated harassment laws.

One of the measures, A10128/S7869, was a response to the state Court of Appeals’ May 13 ruling in People v. Golb, 2014 NY Slip Op 03426, in which the court declared the second-degree aggravated harassment statute unconstitutionally vague.

The other, A7720/S4187, was filed by Buffalo-area legislators to honor Jackie Wisniewski, who was fatally shot in 2012 at the Erie County Medical Center by her estranged boyfriend, Dr. Timothy Jorden Jr. It adds the unauthorized tracking of an individual with a global position system (GPS) device or through other electronic means to the definition of illegal “following” in the state’s fourth-degree stalking statute.

Cuomo said in a statement that protecting New Yorkers from domestic violence is a top priority of his administration. “Strengthening these state laws will help keep our citizens safe,” he said.

While the Golb case concerned a scholar’s use of aliases as part of an Internet campaign to discredit other academics in a dispute over the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls, domestic violence victim advocates said it resulted in the invalidation of an often-used charge against domestic batterers (NYLJ, May 29).

Second-degree harassment, a misdemeanor, is contained in §240.30 of state Penal Law.

Under the bill signed by Cuomo, the words in the previous statute that the Court of Appeals had objected to as too vague, outlawing communication made with another person “in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm,” were removed.

Replacing them were words making the statute applicable where an offender “knows or reasonably should know” that a communication will cause another person to “reasonably fear harm to such person’s physical safety or property, or to the physical safety or property of a member of such person’s same family or household.”

The bill was sponsored by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls. The measure, which takes effect immediately, passed the Assembly by a 134-0 vote on June 19 and the Senate by a 48-11 vote on June 20.

The stalking measure, which takes effect in 90 days, adds the tracking of a person with an electronic device to the activities that constitute fourth-degree stalking under Penal Law §120.45. The statute defines proscribed activities as those “likely to cause reasonable fear of material harm to the physical health, safety or property” of another person or their families.

Fourth-degree stalking is a misdemeanor.

The bill’s chief sponsors were Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Timothy Kennedy, both Buffalo Democrats.

Following Wisniewski’s murder in the basement of the Buffalo medical center where she and Jorden both worked, it was revealed that Wisniewski had discovered that the surgeon placed a GPS device on her car and had apparently been tracking her movements for about three months.

Although Wisniewski complained to West Seneca police, she did not press charges against Jorden because of fears of angering him, her relatives said. Use of the GPS device was not a violation of the stalking law at the time.

Jorden, a surgeon, killed himself soon after Wisniewski was murdered.

Peoples-Stokes and Kennedy said that by adding electronic tracking to the stalking statute, potential domestic violence victims would have another charge to presen when seeking an order of protection.

The stalking bill was approved 138-0 by the Assembly on April 29 and 60-0 by the Senate on June 20.

Michael Stutman, president of the New York chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said his group did not advise Cuomo on the bill.

But Stutman, a Mishcon de Reya partner, said he knows of at least one case where a GPS device was used to surreptitiously track a party in a divorce case. Stutman said he expected more changes to state laws to reflect the potential misuse of the improved capacities of communications devices—including cell phones—to record the location and movements of people against their knowledge or will.

Cuomo also approved:

A5309/S1207. It provides authority for a court to remove surrogates or health care agents if they are subject to an order of protection or are being criminally prosecuted for harming the beneficiary. Sponsors said the law had provided no such explicit authority for courts previously.

A8201/S5951. This bill creates a new §296-c of state Human Rights Law that specifies the law’s protections against harassment, discrimination and other forms of abusive treatment apply to unpaid interns. Case law, including O’Connor v. Davis, 126 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 1997), had generally been interpreted as excluding unpaid interns from Human Rights Law protections, sponsors said.