Un-Welcome “Touching”: Lessons From Richard Belzer’s Gaffe

Richard Belzer
Richard Belzer

Richard Belzer, one of the icons of the 1970s comedy scene in New York City, the man who “made his bones” at the club Catch A Rising Star, recently found himself in the middle of a bizarre misunderstanding in the city, one so messy that the famed comedian was forced to explain some things to the police. One day in early March, Belzer, the ad-lib master now better known for playing a cop in the TV drama Law and Order: Special Victims Unit had gone to the busy Apple Store in midtown Manhattan to shop for a computer and had apparently become impatient while waiting in line. Then a young female employee, named Milan Agnew, asked Belzer how she could help.

What happened next is a subject of dispute. Agnew claimed that after telling her what he needed, Belzer then lunged at her and grabbed her neck in a choking gesture. However, Belzer said he only put his hands on her shoulders and nothing more. In any event, Agnew called the police and lodged a “harassment” complaint against Belzer. Upon arrival, the police spoke to both parties, reviewed the surveillance video of the incident and eventually cleared Belzer of the harassment charge.

Under New York law, to get someone on a harassment charge the accuser has to prove, first, that the other person had an “intent” to harass, or to annoy or to alarm the accuser. Next, the accuser has to prove that the other person acted with that intent when he proceeded to strike, or shove or kick or make some other physical contact with the accuser or to attempt to do any of these things to the accuser. In real life, it’s not an easy thing to show what someone intends to do unless their actions show that what they are accused of doing is the only thing they could have been trying to do. With charges like harassment that require “intent”, proving them can be a tall order. So, Belzer benefited from this tall order when the cops could not find that the comedian had the “intent” to harass the young woman at the store.

But does that mean that Belzer is completely off the hook in that whole misunderstanding? Maybe not! And who knows what Agnew, who insists she’s not “star-struck” might eventually decide to do, especially since she feels that “more could have been done” to Belzer by law enforcement. Well, she’s obviously not a big Belzer fan. For his part, Belzer quips that she’s delusional and needs help. In any case, if Agnew should decide to keep this matter alive, Belzer may yet have a court date in his calendar- civil court, that is.

For starters, she could sue Belzer for battery which is a kind of wrongful act, something lawyers call a “tort”. Battery occurs when one person without the permission of the other person “intentionally” touches the other person or makes some other form of physical contact with that other person without any lawful excuse. Speaking of lawful excuse, when a cop arrests somebody, for instance, or when an emergency room doctor touches an unconscious accident victim, there is lawful excuse in both cases, even though the person arrested would rather the cop not touch him and the accident victim in the ER was so unconscious that he was in no position to agree to the doctor touching him. But once there is no lawful excuse for the touching, then it wouldn’t even matter that no harm was caused or even intended.

In Belzer’s case, his hand action was obviously intentional and Agnew apparently did not welcome it or even find it remotely funny. And who knows what lawful excuse he might have for putting his hand on the shoulders of a stranger (which he admits he did, at least).
Luckily for Belzer, this whole situation looks rather like something that will blow over with time. More than likely, the celebrity comedian meant his hand action at the Apple Store that day as something of a joke. Except that it takes two to tango and in this particular situation, Belzer’s tango partner likely had a different sense of humor.

Perhaps the big lesson here is that comedians in the mood for jokes in off stage locations must watch out for folks who may  well be on a different wavelength and so won’t appreciate the jokes. Otherwise, first-class antics that might deliver a “killing” onstage could end up as a faux pas with possible legal consequences.

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