Thursday, June 5, 2014

State Court of Appeals strikes down Aggravated Harassment law

This is certainly one of the more unusual cases I've ever seen. The son of a prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar created bogus email addresses for purposes of impersonating other Dead Sea Scroll scholars. To satisfy his obsessive daddy complex, the fabricator, Raphael Golb, did this to discredit and hurt the reputations of these scholars. Golb was convicted of various crimes, including Aggravated Harassment. The State Court of Appeals sustains some of these convictions, but it does something that courts have threatened to do for years: it strikes down the Aggravated Harassment law as unconstutitional.

The case is People v. Golb, decided on May 13. The criminal impersonation convictions are upheld. While the scholars whom Golb tried to discredit did not lose any property, their reputations suffered. That's enough to violate the statute. Golb's forgery convictions are also sustained, for the most part. To me, though, the news is what happened to the Aggravated Harassment law.

A person is guilty of Aggravated Harassment in the Second Degree if, "with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, he or she ... communicates with a person, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, by telegraph, or by mail, or by transmitting or delivering any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm."

Take a good look at that language: "with intent to harass, annoy" or "alarm." That language has caused problems for years. State and federal courts have condemned this language as potentially punishing First Amendment speech. As federal judge Charles Brieant once wrote, the statute is "utterly repugnant to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution." The reason for this concern is that you can annoy and alarm people all day but not cause any real harm. Some courts said the statute should be interpreted to only prohibit actual threats or the clear and present danger of some harm. In essence, these courts were re-writing the statute to save it. So what you had was a hodge-podge of court rulings that police departments had to follow to ensure their arrests would hold up.

The Court of Appeals finally puts an end to the guesswork of what's legal and what's not under the Aggravated Harassment statute. "The statute criminalizes, in broad strokes, any communication that has the intent to annoy. 'No fair reading' of this statute's 'unqualified terms supports or even suggests the constitutionally necessary limitations on its scope.' ... 'We decline to incorporate such limitations into the statute by judicial construction' because that would be 'tantamount to wholesale revision of the Legislature's enactment, rather than prudent judicial construction.'"

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