Governor Andrew Cuomo, left, and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver
Governor Andrew Cuomo, left, and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ()

ALBANY – State leaders said Tuesday they have reached an acceptable way to rephrase a state criminal harassment statute that had been commonly invoked in domestic violence cases until New York’s highest court struck it down for being unconstitutionally vague.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders said the reworked second-degree aggravated harassment statute, Penal Law §240.30, will be approved by lawmakers before they conclude their legislative session this week.

The Court of Appeals invalidated the statute, which made it a misdemeanor to communicate with another person “in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm,” in its May 13 ruling in People v. Golb, 2014 NY Slip Op 03426. The court said the statute failed to specify what causing annoyance or alarm meant or what exact behaviors the law proscribed (NYLJ, May 14).

Cuomo said the new bill, A10128/S7869, addresses the constitutional defects identified by the court. “This bill strengthens our laws against aggravated harassment, and will help ensure that all victims receive the protection they need,” the governor said in a statement.

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, called the aggravated harassment statute “an important tool in our fight against domestic violence and this legislation will fill a gap left in the law after the Court of Appeals decision.”

The Golb ruling prompted district attorneys and advocates for domestic violence victims to demand a legislative fix (NYLJ, May 29). They said the statute is frequently cited as the criminal behavior that domestic violence victims cite when they seek orders of protection in family or criminal court.

While the state Division of Criminal Justice Services said there were more than 7,600 arrests in New York last year for which second-degree aggravated harassment was the top charge, advocates said it is far more often invoked, counting instances where the offense is a lesser charge or where defendants plead to it from more serious counts.

Under the new bill, the phrase “in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm” is eliminated in favor of a description of 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 legislation also eliminates the “telegram” as a means of conveying a threat which causes harm and adds the “computer or any other electronic means” in a reflection of the changing nature of communications.

The new law would take effect immediately upon being signed by Cuomo.

Sources familiar with the discussions that led to Tuesday’s announced agreement said talks would continue in hopes of later adding mental and emotional harm to the statute. The rewritten statute includes the threats to cause physical harm.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. prosecuted defendant Raphael Golb in the case that led to the May 13 ruling.

While Golb concerned an academic dispute over the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Vance immediately identified the ruling’s effect on the prosecution of domestic violence cases as the real import of the determination on May 13.

“The new statute will be a significant tool that prosecutors across the state will use to combat harassment, particularly in cases of domestic violence where victims are in danger of being physically harmed,” Vance said in a statement Tuesday.

The new legislation is sponsored by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, chairman of the Senate Codes Committee.