Harassment Laws in New York

An article in the Daily News reports that Marla Maples ex-publicist, Chuck Jones, was arrested in New York this week for harassment, stalking and other charges related to his apparent obsession with Maples. You may recall that Jones was sentenced to prison some time ago for weapons possession, although the news at that time concentrated on his fascination with Ms. Maples’ shoe collection.

The current drama, according to the report we read, alleges that Jones sent several “profanity-laced” emails to Maples, who was married from 1993 to 1999 to Donald Trump. The emails were supposedly sent between April and May of this year, and included such statements as “I hope you choked on the Easter Bunny”; “I hope your Easter basket catches fire and burns your house to the ground”; and “Now shove an egg in your slimy mouth and choke.” One of the emails referred to Maples as “a piece of s—, homewrecker and all-around dumbass.”

The arrest was based upon a complaint charging Jones with five counts of harassment, as well as one count of stalking, among other charges. It alleges that as a result of Jones’ behavior, Maples suffered annoyance and was in fear of physical injury. Of course, we don’t know what actually occurred, and we believe in the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. But assuming the facts are as in the report, what does all this mean in terms of the laws in New York?

What is Harassment?

Harassment is defined in Article 240 of the New York Penal Law, under the heading of offenses against public order. Specifically section 240.25 and those that follow set forth the various offenses. In fact, there are four different harassment classifications. They are as follows:

    • Harassment in the first degree. This offense, which is a Class A misdemeanor, consists of repeatedly following someone in a public place, or another course of conduct or repeated acts which place the other person “in reasonable fear of physical injury.” The offense includes the requirement that the state prove the harassment was intentional.
    • Harassment in the second degree. This is a violation (less than a misdemeanor), and involves either physical contact, or following someone in a public place, or the commission of repeated acts or a course of conduct which alarm or annoy the other person, and which have no legitimate purpose. Second degree harassment requires intent to harass, but does not require fear of injury, and may not require repeated acts.
    • Aggravated harassment in the second degree. This is a Class A misdemeanor. A person commits second degree aggravated harassment when, among other things, he or she, with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, communicates with the other person by telephone, in writing or by electronic means in a manner likely to cause annoyance.
    • Aggravated harassment in the first degree. This classification applies generally to harassment motivated by religious, racial, gender-based and similar feelings. It is a class E felony.

Assuming the facts in the complaint against Jones are true, it would appear that it a case may be made for second degree harassment, first degree harassment and/or second degree aggravated harassment. But the differences among the various charges are in some cases fairly subtle.

As noted above, Jones was also charged with one count of stalking. There are actually four gradations of stalking, all of which appear in article 120 of the Penal Law, which is entitled Assault and Related Offenses. Let’s take a look at one of the stalking statutes, this one known as stalking in the third degree, a class A misdemeanor. It states that a person commits the crime of stalking when

“With intent to harass, annoy or alarm a specific person, [he or she] intentionally engages in a course of conduct directed at such person which is likely to cause such person to reasonably fear physical injury or serious physical injury . . .”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, the language of the statute is almost identical to the language contained in the second degree harassment law.

So why all this discussion about a bunch of laws that sound so similar? Our point really has little to do with Chuck Jones, and even less to do with Marla Maples. What all this demonstrates is that the criminal laws in New York, as in other jurisdictions, were not written at the same time, nor were they written with the same object in mind. As a result, these laws are an amalgam of words that are sometimes inconsistent, and often confusing. Laws that appear to say one thing are sometimes applied to situations and in ways that seem inconsistent with the words themselves. And common sense alone will not provide a clear understanding of the criminal laws. If you have been charged with harassment, stalking, or any other crime in New York, only an experienced New York criminal attorney can guide you through the maze of statutes which apply in your particular case.

George Vomvolakis Law Offices
275 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
(212) 682-0700