People v. Stuart

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation100 N.Y.2d 412,765 N.Y.S.2d 1,797 N.E.2d 28
PartiesTHE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent, v. PAUL STUART, Appellant.
Decision Date02 July 2003

100 N.Y.2d 412
797 N.E.2d 28
765 N.Y.S.2d 1

PAUL STUART, Appellant

Court of Appeals of the State of New York.

Argued June 5, 2003.

Decided July 2, 2003.

100 N.Y.2d 413
Legal Aid Society Criminal Appeals Bureau, New York City (Natalie Rea, Kathryn Wadia and Andrew C. Fine of counsel), for appellant

Robert M. Morgenthau, District Attorney, New York City (Sylvia Wertheimer and Susan Gliner of counsel), for respondent.

Hilary Sunghee Seo, New York City, and Dorchen Leidholdt for Sanctuary for Families' Center for Battered Women's Legal Services and others, amici curiae.

Judges SMITH, GRAFFEO and READ concur with Judge ROSENBLATT; Chief Judge KAYE concurs in result in a separate opinion in which Judge CIPARICK concurs.

100 N.Y.2d 414


In 1999, the Legislature criminalized "stalking." The crime contemplates an intentional course of conduct with no legitimate purpose in which the offender targets a particular person. The conduct must be likely to place the victim in reasonable fear of material harm, or cause the victim mental or emotional harm (see Penal Law § 120.45).1 In seeking reversal of his conviction, defendant contends that the anti-stalking statute is unconstitutionally vague both on its face and as applied to him. We disagree and therefore affirm the order of the Appellate Term upholding the conviction.

I. Facts

Although defendant had not previously known his victim, a 22-year-old student, he approached her outside a card store and presented her with a bouquet of flowers on Valentine's Day 2000. Complainant refused the gift, but defendant insisted she take it, introduced himself as "Paul," and shook her hand. Ultimately she took the flowers and walked away.

Later that month, defendant stood "shoulder-to-shoulder" next to complainant at a local coffee shop. He asked her to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. After she declined, defendant asked her to dinner. She refused, telling him that her boyfriend would not appreciate his advances. Undeterred, defendant presented her with a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a portrait of her that he had drawn. On the portrait defendant had inscribed complainant's first name. Disquieted by this unwanted attention, complainant "made it clear" to defendant that she did not want any further contact with him. After he insisted that complainant accept the gifts, she took them and left the coffee shop to go to a library.

100 N.Y.2d 415
Defendant followed her, twice ducking behind trees when complainant looked over her shoulder. When she got to the library, she described defendant to a security guard. A friend then accompanied complainant to the police precinct, where she turned in a written report of the incident. Worried, she spent the night at the friend's house

A few days later, complainant went to an athletic club on the second floor of a building near her home. From the street below, passersby could see the club's patrons. Defendant positioned himself where he could see complainant and stare at her while she was working out. Increasingly frightened, she called a friend to meet her at the club and accompany her as she left. Once on the street, they saw defendant handing out flyers. Complainant and her friend then went to a bank to withdraw money. Defendant followed and watched them wait in line at the ATM.

The next day, defendant trailed complainant twice. During a break in her classes, he followed her to a delicatessen where she bought lunch. That evening, he followed her home. Rather than go to her dormitory room, complainant took refuge in a delicatessen on the ground floor of her building, where she telephoned her father and stayed for 40 minutes, afraid to leave. During that entire time, defendant paced outside, staring at her through the windows. When complainant left the deli, defendant was still in the area and began walking toward her.

The following day, defendant watched complainant and her friend have lunch and tracked the pair while they shopped, coming within five feet of them. Whenever they looked back at him, defendant would try to hide behind walls or trees. The two friends then walked to the police precinct. Defendant suspended his pursuit only when the two women approached the station house, where complainant filed another report.

For almost every day over the ensuing five weeks, defendant followed complainant to various locations, including her dormitory, school and gymnasium, and to stores and restaurants in the neighborhood. When she caught sight of him, defendant would often duck behind a corner and peek out to leer at her. She was frequently accompanied by her friend, who saw defendant following complainant two to three times a week.

Fearful and distraught, complainant again contacted the police and altered her daily patterns, trying to shake defendant off. His intrusive behavior only intensified, and on April 5,

100 N.Y.2d 416
2000, for the first time, he trailed her outside her neighborhood. On that day, complainant went shopping in uptown Manhattan. When taking the subway home, she saw defendant enter her subway car. Defendant did not approach her, but stood several feet away, staring and smirking. Afraid to go home, complainant again spent the night at her friend's house. The following day, she went to the police and filed another report

The day after that, she saw defendant tracking her once more. For a fifth time, complainant went to the police station, where she broke down in tears. Police arrested defendant the next day and charged him with one count of third-degree stalking (Penal Law § 120.50 [3]), two counts of fourth-degree stalking (Penal Law § 120.45 [1], [2]) and one count of first-degree harassment (Penal Law § 240.25).

Before trial, defendant moved to dismiss the fourth-degree stalking charges, claiming that Penal Law § 120.45 is unconstitutionally vague both on its face and as applied to him. He argued that the statute fails to provide adequate notice of what conduct it prohibits and does not give sufficient guidance to those charged with enforcing it. The trial court rejected defendant's arguments, concluding that, as applied to him, the statute satisfied the requirements of due process. Defendant waived his right to a jury trial and the court found him guilty of both counts of fourth-degree stalking.2

On appeal to the Appellate Term, defendant again argued that Penal Law § 120.45 is unconstitutional on its face and as applied to him. The court affirmed the conviction, holding that the challenged provisions "provide sufficient notice of the conduct proscribed and are written in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement" (191 Misc 2d 541, 543 [2002]). A Judge of this Court granted defendant leave to appeal, and we now affirm.

II. New York's Anti-Stalking Statute

In 1992, the Legislature amended the menacing and harassment statutes in its first effort to penalize stalking-type behavior (see L 1992, ch 345; see also Governor's Mem approving L 1992, ch 345, 1992 McKinney's Session Laws of NY, at 2886). Concluding that these amendments were not up to the task and that "stalking behavior * * * ha[d] become more prevalent * * * in recent years," the Legislature in 1999 enacted

100 N.Y.2d 417
the "Clinic Access and Anti-Stalking Act of 1999" (L 1999, ch 635, § 2), creating a new, separate crime known as stalking. The lawmakers were moved by the "unfortunate reality [] that stalking victims have been intolerably forced to live in fear of their stalkers" and that "[s]talkers who repeatedly follow, phone, write, confront, threaten or otherwise unacceptably intrude upon their victims, often inflict immeasurable emotional and physical harm upon them" (id.). Accordingly, like the other 49 states and the District of Columbia before it,3 New York enacted an anti-stalking law to give greater protections to stalking victims and "provide clear recognition of the dangerousness of stalking" (id.; see also NY Assembly Mem in Support of L 1999, ch 635, 1999 McKinney's Session Laws of NY, at 2012).

The Act, codified at Penal Law § 120.45, provides in relevant part:

"A person is guilty of stalking in the fourth degree when he or she intentionally, and for no legitimate purpose, engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person, and knows or reasonably should know that such conduct:
"1. is likely to cause reasonable fear of material harm to the physical health, safety or property of such person, a member of such person's immediate family or a third party with whom such person is acquainted; or
"2. causes material harm to the mental or emotional health of such person, where such conduct consists of following, telephoning or initiating communication or contact with such person, a member of such person's immediate family or a third party with whom such person is acquainted, and the actor was previously clearly informed to cease that conduct."

On this appeal, defendant contends that Penal Law § 120.45 is unconstitutionally vague both on its face and as applied to him. As he did in the courts below, he argues that the statute neither gives people adequate notice of what conduct it

100 N.Y.2d 418
proscribes nor provides adequate guidance to those charged with enforcing it.4

III. The Vagueness Doctrine

A. Evolution and General Principles

It is axiomatic that a proscriptive law must provide people with reasonable notice of the conduct it prohibits. Defendant's challenge goes to the core of this precept. While he properly couches his argument in due process terms, courts had recognized the concept long before it took on constitutional status under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The point was made in this country's jurisprudential infancy, when almost two centuries ago a court explained that, as a rule of statutory construction, indefiniteness is a ground for

100 N.Y.2d 419

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