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Nassau DA calls for legislation to address threats of mass violence

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and state

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) on Monday announce legislation boosting penalties for threatening schools or churches with mass violence. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Legislation announced Monday by Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas would broadly criminalize threats of mass violence against schools and religious institutions, closing a loophole in state law forcing prosecutors to prove the conduct constitutes a terroristic act.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Christine Pellegrino (D-West Islip) introduced the bill, which would create the misdemeanor charge of “making a threat of mass harm,” punishable by a year in jail.

The measure also would create an elevated felony charge of “aggravated threat of mass harm,” punishable by up to 4 years in prison, for individuals who make an overt act to follow through on the threat, including compiling a target list, drafting a plan and acquiring weapons, officials said.

At a news conference Monday in Mineola, Singas said the bill would eliminate the need for prosecutors to prove that threats against schools, churches, malls or other mass gatherings constitute an imminent terroristic act meant to intimidate certain populations.

Prosecutors, Singas said, are often left with no choice but to charge a suspect threatening mass harm with “making a terroristic threat,” punishable by up to 7 years in prison under a law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“A threat is a threat,” Singas said, “and we need to hold those who make them accountable for their words and the very serious consequences that accompany them,” including tens of thousands of dollars in law enforcement costs wasted by law enforcement.

Singas said threats of mass violence have escalated nationwide since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead. She said her office has been unable to bring charges against some individuals who have made threats against schools and churches because of gaps in state law.

A May 2017 decision by a state appellate court prompted the proposed legislation. The appellate court dismissed an indictment by Singas’ office against Brian Hulsen, a custodian at an East Norwich school who prosecutors said threatened to “Columbine” his workplace — a reference to the 1999 Colorado high school massacre that left 15 dead and 24 injured.

Hulsen, of Bethpage, was arrested in 2015 and charged with making a terroristic threat after a faculty member at James H. Vernon School heard him make a verbal threat toward a teacher and against the school, authorities said. Hulsen also mimed shooting a firearm while imitating gun noises, police said.

The Appellate Division’s Second Department found the charge could trivialize the meaning of terrorism and no imminent risk existed showing Hulsen would follow through on his threat. The charge was dismissed and Hulsen is seeking the return of several firearms seized by authorities, including an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, prosecutors said.

“The fact that someone can say they want to ‘Columbine’ a school and yet law enforcement is powerless to respond is absolutely unacceptable and after Parkland it’s beyond unthinkable,” Kaminsky said. “Our laws need to catch up and allow law enforcement to have the tools that are needed to address threats.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) did not respond to requests for comment.

Since Parkland, lawmakers in states across the nation have introduced legislation to deter threats of mass violence.

A bill in Maryland would increase penalties if threats are made against children or in a location where children gather, such as schools. Meanwhile, officials in more than two dozen states, including Massachusetts, Vermont and Florida, have introduced “red flag” laws that would prohibit someone from possessing or buying a gun if they are judged to be a risk to themselves or others.

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