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Court of Appeals Upholds the Constitutionality of New York’s Stalking Law

August 1, 2003

On July 2, 2003, the Court of Appeals rejected arguments by defendant, Paul Stuart, that the New York State anti-stalking law was unconstitutionally vague both on its face and as applied to him. Since the stalking law's passage in late 1999, People v. Paul Stuart1 is the first legal challenge to ascend the entire appellate ladder in New York State.

The Clinic Access and Anti-Stalking Act of 1999

In 1992, the NYS Legislature took an important, first step toward recognizing that stalking warranted stronger legal measures and amended the crimes of menacing and harassment to include sections addressing stalking-like behaviors.2  Despite this action, New York law still contained no specific anti-stalking statute. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that even these laws inadequately recognized and addressed the dynamics and behaviors related to stalking. For some time, New York remained the only state in our nation without any specific anti-stalking legislation.3

Following increased public pressure, the New York Legislature finally passed The Clinic Access and Anti-Stalking Act of 1999. Effective on December 1, 1999, the comprehensive series of laws4 created four degrees of stalking crimes ranging from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class D Felony. Recognizing the tenacious nature of stalkers, the law targeted stalking conduct at its earliest stages. It also provides for increased penalties for those who stalk children, commit sex offenses, violate orders of protection, and cause injury while stalking, possess weapons while stalking, have committed prior crimes of stalking or were previously convicted of other specified predicate offenses. Additionally, in response to data indicating that many stalking victims were stalked or murdered by current or former intimate partners5, all four stalking crimes also became enumerated family offenses6.

The 1999 law sought to more effectively target stalking crimes by focusing on the offender's conduct and behaviors, as well as the victim's state of mind and/or the reasonable fear of harm. The prior harassment laws used to combat stalking were specific intent crimes. In choosing to focus on the stalker's conduct, rather than the stalker's motivation or intended consequences, the Legislature was attempting to insure that offenders would not escape criminal liability simply by claiming that their persistent and outrageous conduct was not specifically intended to cause fear in the targeted victim. In pertinent part, Penal Law §120.45 states:

"a person is guilty of stalking in the fourth degree when s/he intentionally, and for no legitimate purpose, engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person, and knows or reasonably should know that such conduct (1) is likely to cause reasonable fear of material harm to the physical health, safety or property of such person...; or (2) causes material harm to the mental or emotional health of such person where such conduct consists of following, telephoning, or initiating communication or contact with such person... and the actor was previously clearly informed to cease that conduct."

Until Stuart, there has been very few published decisions substantively interpreting the stalking laws7.

Facts and Procedural History

The defendant, Paul Stuart, approached the complainant, a 22 year-old college student, introduced himself, shook her hand, and insisted she take flowers from him which she reluctantly accepted. Later that same month, he stood very close to her in a coffee shop and asked her to dinner. When she refused his advances and advised him that she had a boyfriend, defendant offered complainant a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a portrait of her that he had drawn. When she left to go to the library, defendant followed her and ducked behind trees when she looked behind her. For a period of nearly five weeks, defendant relentlessly pursued the complainant almost daily–following her onto the subway, to her home, her gym, her school, stores, and restaurants. In all, the complainant reported incidents of stalking to the police five times. Following the final complaint, the police arrested the defendant and charged him with three counts of stalking and one count of harassment.

During the City Court proceedings, the defendant moved to dismiss the case arguing that the stalking statutes failed to provide adequate notice of prohibited conduct and, further, failed to give sufficient guidance to those charged with enforcing the laws. These arguments were rejected by the lower court. Following a bench trial, the defendant was ultimately convicted of two counts of Stalking in the Fourth Degree in August 2000.

The defendant's appeal to the First Department on the same constitutional grounds was also summarily rejected 8.

The Court of Appeals Decision

Defendant Stuart again advanced arguments that the statute was unconstitutionally vague both on its face (facial invalidity), as well as applied to him (as-applied) 9.

The Defendant argued that the legislature's failure to define the term, "no legitimate purpose" renders the statute impermissibly vague because a person of ordinary intelligence would not know what the phrase meant. He further advanced that such vagueness would undoubtedly lead to discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement by police. This problem, he stated, was only exacerbated by the fact that the statute was drafted with a general, rather than specific intent requirement. Stuart suggested that before a person can be convicted of stalking he must have intended a particular result from his conduct, such as fear or harm.

Deconstructing the statute, the Court noted that the Legislature's decision to make this a general intent crime was quite conscious and steeped in sound policy. Because of many stalkers' various, complicated reasons for engaging in this conduct (i.e. to intimidate a target or to delusionally try to win their love), trying to discern their specific motivation would be difficult, if not impossible. In fact, noted the Court, it was precisely the intent defense defendant now advances which the Legislature specifically sought to stymie. Writing for the majority, Judge Rosenblatt stated, "If the Legislature had required that the stalker intend to frighten or harm the victim, the statute would be debilitated and a great many victims endangered."

The Court advised that while the law does not contain a specific intent requirement, there is a mens rea element in place sufficient to prevent one from being prosecuted for acts that are accidental or inadvertent. The Court also indicated that the statute further delineates conduct that may easily be avoided by the "innocent-minded" citizen of average intelligence. Other elements of the statute are sufficiently objective in that they require that the victim's fear be reasonable and that the psychological and emotional harm be material.

Defendant attacked the use of the term "no legitimate purpose" as inherently imprecise. Rejecting this challenge, the Court indicated that this term does not stand in isolation. When taken together in context with the rest of the statutory language requiring the offensive conduct to be intentional, repetitive, and unwanted, the statute offers clear and definite warning to a person of ordinary intelligence.

As to the defendant's own conduct, the Court simply did not believe the defendant could have reasonably failed to realize that his long-term and repetitive acts targeted at his victim were not criminal in nature. The Court noted that he advanced no explanation for his "inflicting himself on the complainant....nor...some valid purpose other than hounding her to the point of harm." Hammering home this point, the Court stated that the defendant's course of conduct "is not legitimate, and [he] has given us no reason to conclude that it could have been anything but illegitimate."

Doubtless, New York had the benefit of examining anti-stalking legislation from all other states when crafting its own 10. Using the "legitimate purpose" terminology in concert with a general intent standard parallels stalking statutes across the country11. As in New York, most of the challenges on constitutional "void for vagueness" grounds have similarly failed12.

In addition to making an important ruling regarding the constitutionality of this specific law, the Court also used the opportunity of this case to articulate a new rule regarding vagueness challenges. Following an extremely detailed analysis of the evolution of the "void for vagueness doctrine", the Court stated that if the accused makes an as-applied challenge and said challenge is rejected, then the law will have been constitutionally applied to at least one person. Following this logic, the court then indicated that if the law has been constitutionally

applied, the law must be determined to be facially valid as well. On the hand, if the accused is able to demonstrate that a law is sufficiently vague that it fails to provide adequate notice of proscribed conduct such that arbitrary and discriminatory police enforcement would follow, a court should sustain a facial invalidity challenge because the law can never be constitutionally applied to any individual.

Concurring in the result, Chief Judge Kaye took issue only with the new rule announced in the opinion. Disagreeing with the majority's analytical approach she stated, "… a facially vague statute fails to give anyone notice of its limits, even though everyone might understand its core, and even though it may not be unconstitutional as applied to this core."


Endnotes

1.    2003 NY Slip Op. 15695, 2003 WL 21512235 (N.Y.)

2.   L.1999, ch. 635, §2

3.    Demetra M. Pappas, Stopping New Yorkers' Stalkers: An Anti-Stalking Law For the Millennium, 27 Fordham Urb. L.J.945 (Winter 2000)

4.   See Penal Law §§120.45 (Stalking in the Fourth Degree), 120.50 (Stalking in the Third Degree), 120.55 (Stalking in the Second Degree), and 120.60 (Stalking in the First Degree)

5.   Patricia Tjaden, Ph.D,, The Crime of Stalking: How Big Is the Problem?, National Institute of Justice Research Preview, November 1997.

6. Supra note 2; Family Court Act §812

7. See People v. Raymond Starkes, 185 Misc. 2d 186 (2000); People v. Lonnie Eugene, 2001 NY Slip Op. 4001 (2001); People v. Evelyn Perez, 189 Misc.2d 516 (2001); People v. Gregory Brown, 190 Misc.2d 710 (2002); People v. Paul Stuart, 191 Misc. 2d 541 (2001).

8. Stuart, supra note 7 at 541

9.  Stuart, supra note 1. (Please note that at the time of this writing, the decision had still not been given publication page references. Accordingly, there are no formal footnoted citations to this opinion included.)

10. Pappas, supra note 3 at 948-949

11. Stuart, supra note 7 at 544

12. Stuart, supra note 1; See also Stuart, supra note 7 at 544


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