Despite calls from women’s rights advocates to endorse a bill that would create new criminal codes against stalking, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says a measure passed in March by the state Senate and now languishing in the Assembly is "overbroad" and does not stress the intent of the perpetrator.
"Every criminal statute has to define intent," said Silver. "This [law] does not define intent, so that if someone sends flowers to a woman he is guilty of a crime if that person feels upset about it."
New York is the only state in the nation without a law creating specific penalties against stalkers. Under current law, stalkers can be charged only with menacing or harassment.
Patti Jo Newell, director of public policy of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Albany, said Silver’s focus on intent could either derail the bill or water it down to the point of ineffectiveness. She said other states "do not have the same kind of intent hurdle the speaker wants to erect in New York." Newell noted that stalker legislation elsewhere has survived constitutional challenges.
Passage of the bill would benefit Orthodox women who are reluctant to, or prohibited from, seeking restraining orders against abusive husbands in secular courts, says Margaret Retter, an attorney and advocate for battered women.
"When a woman goes to a bet din, [the rabbinical court] will often demand that she withdraw her case from family or criminal court in order to receive her Jewish divorce," said Retter, who is Orthodox. "Unfortunately, the Jewish courts cannot enforce any kind of order for a husband or stalker to stay away from his or her victim."
But David Zwiebel, counsel for Agudath Israel of America, said he was unaware of any such circumstance. In most cases, he said, a bet din would place a woman’s safety above all other concerns.
"That bill is not on my radar screen," he said.
Since the bill also deals with protecting access to abortion clinics, widespread Orthodox backing of the measure is unlikely.
Silver said he is working with state district attorneys to draft another version, but at least one DA, Charles J. Hynes of Brooklyn (an activist against domestic abuse) said he favors the current bills sponsored by Assemblyman Scott Stringer (D-Upper West Side) and state Sen. Michael Balboni (R-Nassau).
"Either bill is acceptable to me," said Hynes, who calls the 15-day penalty against menacing or aggravated harassment under current law "gornisht," Yiddish for "nothing."
Stringer says the measure would close loopholes that have allowed 89 percent of stalkers arrested in 1997 to avoid jail time.
"The current penalty is almost like a traffic ticket," he said.
Citing uneven enforcement and lenient sentencing, many criminologists believe stalking laws in other states are ineffective.
"The ability to enforce is limited," said Eli Silverman, a professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "On the other hand, it gives the police another tool in terms of monitoring inappropriate behavior, so it can have limited beneficial impact."
State Sen. Leonard Stavisky, a Queens Democrat who died Saturday at 73, was "an important force for good government" in his Flushing community, said the director of the Queens Jewish Community Council.
"We valued his opinion, particularly on education issues," said Manny Behar.
Indeed, Stavisky, one of seven Jews in the Senate and the longest serving Democrat in the state Legislature, had a keen interest in education. While a member of the Assembly, he chaired the Education and Higher Education Committee for more than eight years.
"He used the chairmanship as a bully pulpit for the advancement of quality education in American life," said Sen. Seymour Lachman (D-Brooklyn), a friend of Stavisky’s for more than 30 years. "He was an academic and scholar as well as a senator."
Stavisky, who earned three degrees, also co-authored the Stavisky-Goodman bill limiting state cuts to education during a fiscal crisis. He was elected to the Senate in 1983 after serving 17 years in the Assembly.
Stavisky liked to tell the story of a road trip in Israel gone bad, said Behar. It seems that during the height of the intifada in the late 1980s, Stavisky (in a rental car) found himself on a road leading to the Gaza Strip. Most cars were headed in the opposite direction, but Stavisky kept driving toward the site of a disturbance, only to find himself in the middle of a rock-throwing melee. Israeli soldiers had to extricate the lawmaker.
"This was a guy who wanted to see Israel firsthand; he wasn’t content with what the guides would show him," Behar said. "But this time he saw a little more than he bargained for."