Long Island county votes to allow first responders to sue protesters, allow civil fines up to $50,000

WCBS The Nassau County, New York, legislature voted Monday to approve a law that will…

The Nassau County, New York, legislature voted Monday to approve a law that will allow first responders to sue protesters.

WCBS

The Nassau County, New York, legislature voted Monday to approve a law that will allow first responders to sue protesters.



CNN
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The legislature for Nassau County, New York, approved a bill Monday that says anyone who harasses or injures a first responder – which includes police officers – can be fined up to $50,000 while giving first responders the ability to sue the person directly.

After a heated, five-hour public testimony period, the legislature on Long Island voted 12-6 to put the bill into law. It goes into effect immediately.

This law comes as states and localities try to put limits on the rights of protesters after more than a year of protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

While the Nassau County law does not specifically name Black Lives Matter, it does cite “civil unrest since the close of May of last year,” which is when protests erupted in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Several attorneys attending the hearing on Monday predicted the law would be challenged on constitutional grounds.

In the past year, Oklahoma passed a law that grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters while attempting to flee and stiffens penalties for demonstrators who block public roadways. Florida increased penalties for assault and other related charges during a riot, and prohibited the damaging or defacing of memorials or historic property.

There are currently 53 similar bills pending bills across the country, according to a bill tracker examining US protest laws from the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law.

In May 2019, Nassau County passed legislation to include first responders under its Human Rights Law, prohibiting discrimination against them and identifying them as a “protected class.” The new law puts additional threats of civil legal action and county fines on top of the already established class.

It states that first responders will be able to sue individuals they believe harassed, injured, menaced or assaulted them due to their status as a first responder or while they were in uniform, allowing them to collect compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.

In addition, individuals could be subject to a civil penalty from the county of no more than $25,000 per violation to the “aggrieved” first responder, according to the legislative text. If the violation occurs during a “riot,” the law states the penalty can go up to $50,000.

The fine amounts are based on previous human rights legislation in the county, in which fines can go up to $50,000 for some offenses and up to $100,000 for malicious acts, according to the office of Nassau County Legislator Joshua A. Lafazan, who authored the bill.

The fine would be payable to the first responder on top of potential damages paid from a lawsuit.

The law cites federal code to define what a riot includes, qualifying it as a “public disturbance” involving violence with “one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more” that is causing a clear and present danger. The definition also includes threats or the threat of violence. The law does not go into any further definition on what would be considered violent in these situations.

Many of the speakers during public testimony noted the vague language of what may or may not get them in trouble, saying the bill was meant to target anyone who challenges the police.

Lafazan told CNN on Sunday criticism that the bill targets a specific race or political ideology is “outrageous.”

“This bill, by protecting our first responders, helps guarantee every citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of speech without violence or intimidation,” he said.

Monday’s hearing in Nassau County heard arguments from a variety of stakeholders, including several presidents from different police unions and activists from the area.

“While facing anti-police sentiment under intense scrutiny, our officers time and time again conduct themselves with the utmost professionalism, which has earned them the respect of every community in Nassau County,” said Nassau County Police Benevolent Association President James McDermott.

“Nassau County law enforcement deserves the support of our elected officials, and every possible protection to keep them safe throughout the course of their duties. Any attempt to say otherwise disrespects all who wear the badge,” he said.

But many countered that there was no need to give the extra weight of financial consequences when police already hold so much power.

“Police officers, if they are harassed, like one of the PBA [Police Benevolent Association] presidents said, they can arrest people,” Tracey Edwards, the NAACP Long Island director said during the hearing. “They can use the law. That’s why we have legislation. We have wonderful police officers that can protect themselves. They do not need to have a human rights law to put them above all others. And that’s what you are doing.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union also argued in a statement that the law is potentially unconstitutional as well as an unnecessary protection.

“This bill would create a novel, dangerous, and unconstitutional ‘irrebuttable presumption’ that unlawful conduct directed at police and other first responders was motivated by hatred if the responder was in uniform at the time,” the group said. “That means anyone accused under this law would face criminal sanctions, mandatory civil penalties, and civil suit damages without any opportunity to present evidence that they weren’t acting out of bias. In the criminal context, this is flatly unconstitutional.”

“These laws are misguided and counterproductive, as they undermine police-community relations, do nothing to improve first responder safety, and make a mockery of actual civil rights laws established to protect this Nation’s historically marginalized communities,” NYCLU added.

Nassau is a county of more than 1.3 million people located to the east of New York City.