Constitutional Law Criminal Law

Nassau Bill to Add 1st Responders as “Protected Class” is a Bad, Bad Idea

Tomorrow at the Nassau County Legislature, legislators will be debating an expansion of the County Human Rights Law. Now it took decades to get them to add Sexual Orientation to the list of protected classes so maybe they were finally getting around to adding Transgender as a protected class? Nope. Instead, four Democrats ae spearheading a bill seeking to  amend the Nassau County Human Rights Law to add “first responders” as a protected class. A second bill would make it illegal for a private commercial establishment to deny service to a first responder. Finally, the scourge of police officers and firefighters being denied service will be dealt with!! Let freedom ring!!

Adding first responders as protected class a bad idea

Under this law, it would become a hate crime to “harass, menace, assault or injure” any first responder. In addition, if the incident occurs while the first responder is in uniform, the law says there is an “irrebuttable presumption” that the first responder was targeted because of their profession. Under the human rights bill, a first responder would be allowed to sue for damages, punitive damages, and legal fees. If the incident occurred while the officer was responding to “a riot,” then the payout would be triple. If a first responder does not wish to pursue action under the law, it directs the county attorney to sue on their behalf.

This bill is a misguided overreach which violates the constitutional rights of protesting citizens. The “unrebuttable presumption” deprives the accused of due process; it is highly unlikely this bill as written would survive the inevitable legal challenge. The threat of treble damages for actions taken in a “riot” would have a chilling effect on peaceful protesters as it would they would fear being pitted against law enforcement testimony in determining whether there was a “riot” versus a “protest.” More importantly from a moral standpoint, it makes a mockery of those groups that have labored for centuries to gain protections from abuse they suffered merely because of membership in a protected class comprised of characteristics over which they had no control. Adding a highly valued, highly sought after, chosen profession to this list of protected classes upends the purpose of the Human Rights Law – to protect those minority groups facing a long legacy of discrimination. Perhaps that’s why Nassau County’s three Black legislators (all Democrats) are not expected to support its passage.

It also should be noted that Nassau Police officers in 2019 earned an average of $104,000 annually. By raking in overtime in their last three years, Nassau cops routinely pad their pensions into $200,000 a year. They get incredible health benefits, sick leave and overtime. How are they in need of special protection?

Finally, they signed up for the job of responding to protests and riots. That’s literally their jobs. If someone assaults them, the penalties and charges are already higher under the Penal Law. This bill is simply trying to do to very bad things (1) Pander to the extremely powerful and political Nassau PBA and (2) Stymie and stifle protesters. Oh, and it will also (3) Tie up the County in lengthy and expensive litigation.

Prohibiting Refusal of Service to First Respondersnot as bad, but still bad

            While at first blush, this bill may seem less offensive, it is equally problematic. First, this is a solution in search of problem. There has been no history of first responders being denied service due to their employment status. Second, as with the first bill, it mocks the protections afforded those who have been routinely discriminated against and actually needed the protection of the Human Rights Law. Finally, it opens a slippery slope where other professions could seek to be added to the list, limiting the rights of business owners to conduct their business as they see fit. Are teachers less worthy of this protection? What about postal workers, hospital staff or school custodians, who all serve the public but are not “first responders”?  Business owners should be allowed to conduct their business as they see fit so long as that does not promote or continue systemic discrimination. This bill should also fail.

I am the Vice President of the Long Island Hispanic Bar Association which has been at the forefront protecting the Latino community from discrimination in Nassau County. We well know that our community, as well as many others, need the County Legislature to work on making Nassau County a more equitable place for the minority communities that continue to face disparity in wages, housing, and services. Strengthening the reach and effect of the current Human Rights Law is what the County needs but not in this fashion – we need instead to work harder for those currently allegedly under the law’s protection.

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