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Broome County Passes "Annoyance Law"

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) - The Broome County Legislature passed a resolution Thursday that supporters say protects emergency first responders, but opponents worry will lead to abuse by law enforcement.

It’s officially called the Emergency First Responders Protection Act of 2019, but is known derisively as an annoyance law. It allows police to arrest anyone who harasses emergency first responders. Violators could face up to a year in prison, a $5,000 fine or both.

The definition of harassment is what’s at issue.

An earlier version of the resolution defined harassment as annoying, alarming or threatening an emergency first responder. That was amended in November to define harassment as what’s already listed under New York State penal law.

If that harassment is already detailed in state law, Democratic Legislator Kim Myers wonders why it’s necessary. “What is the issue, the problem?" she asked. "And what is this law attempting to solve?”

Myers and other Democrats on the legislature tried to abstain from Thursday's vote. They said they took an oath to protect the constitution and are not sure this law is constitutional.

Broome County Attorney Robert Behnke countered that if legislators feel the resolution is unconstitutional, they can vote "no".

The decision on whether to allow the abstentions was brought before the full legislature. They were denied and each recorded as "no". The resolution passed 10-4 along party lines, with each abstention counting as a no-vote. One legislator, Democrat Mary Kaminsky, was absent.

During last month's Broome Legislative meeting, protests over the measure led to several arrests. Fewer protestors were at this months meeting, but they expressed the same concerns. They're worry the law is ripe for abuse by law enforcement.

“It's never been the intent to try and do that," countered Republican Legislative Chair Dan Reynolds. "And if somebody used this law here locally to try and silence somebody’s free speech, I’d hope they’d take them to court over it and I’d hope, if the municipality or somebody else did that, I’d hope they’d lose." Reynolds added that the intent is to help first responders do their job in an unimpeded manner.

The resolution has the support of several law enforcement, firefighter and emergency response groups in Broome County. A similar resolution recently passed in Monroe County, but Reynolds claims there was no influence from outside of Broome County on how the local bill is written.

Broome County Executive Jason Garnar will now hold a public hearing on the resolution and then the Democrat will decide on whether it should become law. However, even if Garner vetoes it, Republicans hold a veto-proof majority on the legislature.