Police could sue anyone who hurts their feelings under a New York county's 'diabolical' new bill, a constitutional-law expert says

·3 min read
Nassau County police officers and protesters standing opposite each other.
Black Lives Matter protesters confronting Nassau County police officers in Merrick, New York, on June 2, 2020. Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM via Getty Images
  • Nassau County legislators passed a bill Monday that would allow police officers to sue protesters.

  • A constitutional-law expert told Insider the bill would give officers more rights than civilians.

  • It remains unclear whether the county executive, a Democrat, will sign the bill into law.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Legislators in New York's Nassau County passed a bill Monday that would designate police officers a "protected class" under the county's human-rights law and allow them to sue those who "harass, menace, assault, or injure" them.

But the bill has drawn criticism from local civil-rights activists, and one legal expert told Insider the bill would be found unconstitutional if it were to become law.

Gloria Browne-Marshall, a constitutional-law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, described the bill as "diabolical" legislation seeking to "give police officers more rights than a civilian has."

The bill would allow a police officer, or any other first responder, to sue for $25,000 per violation, according to its text. If the offense is committed while the perpetrator is "in the course of participating in a riot," the penalty jumps to $50,000.

It remains unclear whether the Nassau County executive, who is a Democrat, will sign the bill into law, according to WABC.

Browne-Marshall said a key problem with the bill text was that it did not actually define the offenses for which police officers could sue civilians.

Though much of the media coverage of Nassau County's bill has focused on the potential for officers to sue protesters, Browne-Marshall said such a law would not be limited to demonstrators - it would allow police to sue just about anyone who insults them.

"What does it mean to harass? What does it mean to menace?" Browne-Marshall said. "So this is in the mind of the police officer: that the officer feels harassed or feels menaced in doing their job."

She added that such subjectivity was highly problematic given that the nature of a police officer's job was to regularly handle hostile, chaotic, or violent situations.

"This means that when the police arrive, everyone has to be on their best behavior," she said. "How is this possible when the point of police officers is to bring order into a situation of chaos?"

Browne-Marshall noted that police officers were already imbued with many protections under the law - particularly the doctrine of qualified immunity, which protects them from being personally sued for their actions on the job, even when they violate constitutional rights.

"These police officers already have a gun and training for use of deadly force," she said. "They already have the right to use force. They already have mace. They already have Tasers. They have a nightstick. They have handcuffs. And they have training on how to use their physical selves to bring down a civilian. And so on top of that, they're requiring that with all of these things, the civilian must remain civil at all times or face a $25,000 violation."

Browne-Marshall said she was even more disturbed that, according to the bill text, officers could sue civilians who had not been criminally charged with or convicted of harassing, menacing, assaulting, or injuring officers.

"They have all this weaponry, they have qualified immunity, and they have the ability to avoid court through their relationships with prosecutors, they have the law that allows them to say they feared for their life and could use deadly force," she said. "They get all of these protections, and in addition to all of that, they don't want their feelings hurt."

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