State lawmakers on Monday rushed back to the Capitol to approve a package of anti-terrorism measures, the first response in what will likely be a growing list of get-tough laws nationwide that seek to give law enforcement additional tools to deter and punish terrorists.
The three-bill package broadens the state's death penalty law to specifically include acts of terrorism, gives police additional wiretap and other surveillance powers, creates new crimes and penalties for making terrorist threats, expands prison time for making false bomb threats and cracks down on those making donations or other assistance to groups engaged in terrorist activities. The new law, however, will not be used in the prosecution of those involved in the World Trade Center attacks because it cannot be applied retroactively.
The legislation, said its sponsor, Gov. George E. Pataki, "will provide the legal and strategic weapons we need to help save lives and prevent future tragedies from occurring." In a rare display of swiftness for the Capitol, the package was approved by both houses, over only six no votes, and signed into law in Manhattan later Monday afternoon by Pataki. The law's provisions take effect immediately.
Many lawmakers, concerned about airline delays, jumped in their cars before dawn to head to Albany to approve a series of measures that for years have been stalled in the Assembly; the 150-member, more liberal-leaning house usually looks askance at additional criminal sentencing laws and expanded police powers measures many members believe could trample civil liberty protections.
But, with President Bush gearing up an angry nation for military action in the coming days or weeks, the bills encountered little trouble once they hit the Assembly and Senate floor for debate Monday afternoon.
"There's a natural concern by some people that you don't want to overreact and go too far in dealing with people's civil liberties," said Sen. Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican whose house has passed the anti-terrorism package in previous years. "But from my point of view, now is the time, if we're going to overreact, we overreact in terms of protection (of) our potential victims and innocent people and not worry the least about coddling potential criminals who want to be involved in criminal activity."
Bruno said New York was not acting alone; he said the federal government asked New York to move on the legislation and that other states will, in the weeks ahead, be following suit.
A handful of critics, as well as others speaking anonymously but who voted for the legislation, raised concerns about a rush to enact tough, new laws with no chance for real debate or changes that will have no real impact on those involved in last week's World Trade Center attacks. A half-dozen lawmakers, all Democrats, including several from Manhattan, voted against the bill, voicing objections to everything from their opposition to the death penalty to what may be over-reaching provisions that will affect far more individuals than just suspected terrorists.
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, called it "inexcusable" that Pataki called the session in the hours before the Jewish New Year holiday began last night, giving lawmakers no time to make any changes to the bills. He called some provisions of the bill "overbroad," such as the definition of terrorism that, he maintained, could allow prosecutors to charge someone as a terrorist if they injure a police officer in a lawful protest.
Assemblyman Martin Luster, an Ithaca Democrat, said the package was done "more for political purposes than policy purposes" and that the rush to so quickly act without giving time to consider the package's more sweeping ramifications "undermines our notions of democratic government."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat whose district includes the World Trade Center complex, acknowledged that the laws may never be used by state prosecutors because terrorism crimes come under the purview of federal prosecutors and federal courts. Yet, he said, now is the time to show the nation that state government in New York is acting as one.
"Is it overkill? It may very well be overkill," Silver said of the bill. "But I think it's important to show the unity of our purpose and not question political motives."
The Pataki administration said the measures were needed to help complement existing federal law, much of which already contained many of the provisions approved by Albany on Monday. For the first time, the crime of terrorism in New York is defined to include an array of crimes meant to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence a government or affect the conduct of government. Penalties of various crimes, if they are considered terrorist in nature, are bumped up one category -- meaning additional prison time. If a terrorist act involves murder in the first degree, the death penalty can be sought.
The new law also makes it punishable with a sentence of up to seven years for making a terrorist threat. Those who provide donations or gifts or other items valued in excess of $1,000 to groups engaged in terrorist activities, as defined by the new law, can now go to prison, if convicted, for up to 15 years. Those who help terrorists, either by providing weapons, transportation or other assistance, face sentences of up to 25 years.
The law contains tougher sentences -- up to seven years -- for anyone who makes a false bomb threat, or places a fake bomb, in any public building. It also makes New York a member of a consortium of other states that enable members to more quickly get assistance during emergency situations. Finally, the law broadens to include terrorist activities, as well as falsely reporting incidents in public buildings, to the list of offenses that police can investigate using wiretapping and video surveillance.