06/06/2013 06:53 pm ET

New York State Senate Wants To Make It A Felony To 'Annoy' A Police Officer


The New York State Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would make it a felony to annoy a police officer.

The bill would make aggravated harassment of a police officer a crime punishable by up to four years in prison, and so far, the effort has won praise from law enforcement officials.

"Professionally, I am grateful to see this bill pass through the Senate," Utica Police Department Chief Mark Williams said in a statement. "Our police officers have a very dangerous job and need the support of our government leaders to help make them safe."

However, the proposed law isn't as bad as it sounds: Its language specifies that a person has to make "physical contact" with an officer in order for the action to be a crime.

From the bill:

A person is guilty of aggravated harassment of a police officer or peace officer when, with the intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm [the officer while the officer is] engaged in the course of performing his or her official duties, he or she strikes, shoves, kicks or otherwise subjects such person to physical contact.

When it comes to merely "annoying" a police officer (short of physically touching him or her), your rights are usually protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

But there are some important caveats, the first being that you must not obstruct the officer's ability to perform his or her duty. The other caveat is you can't use language -- aka "fighting words" -- that can cause injury or harm.

Basically, as long as you're not deliberately in the officer's way, and you don't touch them or use language that could cause harm to them, you should be fine.

In a now-famous Supreme Court case from 1987, Houston Vs. Hill, the court ruled that a New Orleans law making it a crime to verbally challenge police officers was invalid on the grounds of freedom of speech.

In his opinion, Justice William Brennan eloquently summed up the essence of the matter.

"The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state," he wrote.

(h/t RT)



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