The intent of the state Legislature in broadening the Son of Sam Law 12 years ago was the focus of arguments before the state’s highest court Thursday that will determine the fate of convicted arsonist Steven Raucci’s pension.
The attorney for Raucci, Alan Pierce, argued that the 2001 changes did not supersede long-standing protections for state pensions. The Legislature could not have intended to put spouses’ and children’s interests in the pensions at risk, he argued before the state Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the attorney for the state, Assistant Solicitor General Owen Demuth, argued that the 2001 expansion of the law still allows for the money to be seized, even though pensions aren’t specifically addressed.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman specifically asked Demuth just that, if the interpretation of the statute the state is asking for is simply adding words to the statute.
“I don’t think we’re adding words onto the statute,” Demuth responded. “I think to do otherwise, to read the exemption as defined here, would be doing that.”
During Pierce’s argument, Lippman asked Pierce a similar question. If the Legislature wanted to carve out an exemption for pensions in the Son of Sam Law, couldn’t they have done that?
“I guess they could have, but it would have been redundant, your honor,” Pierce responded. “They carved it out decades earlier.”
At issue is Raucci’s $79,000 annual pension from his work at the Schenectady City School District and whether it can essentially be held for possible payment to his victims, should they win lawsuits against him.
Raucci was convicted in 2010 on 18 of 22 counts against him, including placing bombs on homes or cars, in a series of incidents intended to intimidate people he perceived as enemies or enemies of his friends. No one was injured in any of the incidents.
He is currently housed in the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, serving 23 years to life.
Thursday’s arguments came after a June 2012 ruling by the mid-level Appellate Division of state Supreme Court that found in favor of the Office of Victim Services for ordering the seizure of Raucci’s $79,000 annual pension under Son of Sam Law provisions. The money has been seized since then.
If the mid-level court’s ruling stands, the money would be made available to Raucci’s victims, should they win lawsuits against him. It would also mean perpetrators of similar crimes with state pensions could see that money frozen for potential payment to victims.
Pierce argued that the mid-level court simply made an assumption as to the Legislature’s intent regarding the Son of Sam Law and pensions.
Allowing the Son of Sam Law to reach pensions puts victims in the position of going against innocent spouses and even children and their interests in the pension, Pierce argued.
“We’re setting up an incredible situation here,” Pierce argued. “There’s nothing in the legislative history that would suggest — we’re going to have crime victims fighting spouses because spouses are going to start divorce actions as soon as somebody gets indicted.”
In Raucci’s case, there are no children involved. His wife, Shelley Raucci, currently is not receiving benefits from her husband’s pension. The appeal was heard on an expedited basis because of that. Shelley Raucci was in court for Thursday’s arguments.
Demuth countered that there are provisions in law that address spouses and children. Courts, he argued, have discretion in such cases to consider spouses and children, and that Shelley Raucci can apply for consideration.
In the June ruling, the mid-level court essentially found that the Son of Sam Law, as revised in 2001, took precedence over an older pension law aimed at protecting pension funds from recovery. Raucci’s pension, and the state pension of anyone convicted of a crime, had been protected under state law, the state Comptroller’s Office has said.
The Office of Victim Services accepted that argument but instead asked for a ruling allowing it to seize a large portion of the pension after it was paid, essentially skirting the pension protections by using the Son of Sam Law.
That law aims to help victims get access to the “funds of a convicted person.” The state agency then notifies victims of the funds and moves to seize them through an injunction request if victims respond that they have already filed lawsuits or intend to.
In Raucci’s case, two of his victims asked that the funds be seized. One, the victim of the most serious charge Raucci was convicted of, filed his suit in early 2011.
Pierce is also the attorney handling Raucci’s appeal of his criminal conviction. He is expected to make his arguments in the criminal appeal before the Appellate Division next month.
A decision from the state’s high court on the pension issue is expected sometime next month.