NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) joined marchers participating in the 250-mile March2Justice tonight at their first stop at a community center in Newark to call for an end to police abuses and for a wholesale reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. The group included nearly 100 activists making their way from Staten Island, New York, to Washington, D.C., in a push for criminal justice reform measures.
“We are at a unique moment in our nation’s history where there is finally widespread attention being given to the problem of police abuses and a broken criminal justice system,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, and one of the speakers at tonight’s rally. “It is fitting for this march, which spans five states, to have its first stop in Newark, a city with a long history of being plagued by police misconduct. It is now time to put an end to racial profiling and other forms of police abuses and to build a criminal justice system that treats all people with dignity and respect.”
A 2014 Department of Justice report, which came in response to an ACLU-NJ petition for a civil rights investigation, found that between 75 percent to 93 percent of all police stops in Newark lack a constitutional basis, as well as widespread racial disparities in stops and arrests and a broken internal affairs system. In response, the ACLU-NJ co-launched a new coalition, Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP), to reform the Newark Police Department. The coalition is pushing for the creation of a strong and independent civilian complaint review board in Newark, which can serve as a model for the rest of the nation. In addition to the ACLU-NJ, the coalition comprises 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP of New Jersey State Conference, New Jersey Communities United, Newark LGBTQ Community Center and People’s Organization for Progress.
“Change starts today with a single step,” said ACLU-NJ Organizer Rashawn Davis, one of the speakers during the evening’s rally in support of March2Justice. “The next eight days represents thousands of people nationwide saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ In Newark, we are working to create a civilian review board and a host of other changes, not just for the betterment of our city, but as a model across the country. Despite recent tragedies, we have something to fight for, something to march for.”
NEWARK – A state court judge approved a settlement agreement that will end the City of New Brunswick’s unconstitutional ban on begging. As a result of the settlement, New Brunswick has agreed to repeal or amend two ordinances that made it illegal to beg in the city. As part of the agreement, New Brunswick also will make a $4,500 donation to Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based organization that provides food, services and opportunities for people living in poverty, and pay $3,000 in attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ counsel.
One of the ordinances explicitly banned panhandling, while the other required a permit to solicit philanthropic donations, violating the right to free expression. In effect, the laws criminalized poverty. With pro bono attorneys from the firm McCarter & English, LLP, the ACLU-NJ brought the case on Dec. 19 on behalf of John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless man who lives in New Brunswick and the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. Fleming had received citations for holding a sign that said “Broke – Please Help – Thank You – God bless you.”
“The Constitution protects the right to peacefully ask for money, and we’re pleased that New Brunswick will respect the rights of people like John Fleming who have done nothing wrong by trying to find a way to survive,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Unfortunately, other towns in New Jersey have ordinances on the books that criminalize begging, and the ACLU-NJ will work to make sure everyone’s rights are protected.”
“We commend the City for working with our team to come to an amicable resolution of our clients’ challenges to the ordinances, and are especially pleased the City agreed to make a donation to Elijah’s Promise, a group that does incredible work for the Central Jersey community,” said Nicholas Insua, a partner at McCarter & English, LLP, who along with partner Gerard Brew, led the team of pro bono attorneys serving as co-counsel in the case.
The court initially granted a temporary injunction on December 22, 2014, after Judge Frank Ciuffani expressed concerns about the ordinances’ constitutionality. As a result, the two ordinances had been temporarily halted. The settlement agreement requires that they be repealed or amended. Fleming, who relies on the charity of others to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months, including the day the lawsuit was filed. At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation.
“New Brunswick’s agreement to end its ban on begging serves as an example to towns across New Jersey that they cannot violate the rights of people in poverty,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, a plaintiff in the suit along with John Fleming. “Instead of criminalizing poverty, government should focus on cost-effective solutions like rental vouchers and affordable housing. Together with organizations like the ACLU, we’re committed to making sure every city treats every person with dignity, no matter their income.”
The First Amendment and our State Constitution protect the rights of people to ask each other for money, but hundreds of towns nationwide have ordinances outlawing the practice, including several in New Jersey, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The ACLU of New Jersey is currently researching these ordinances in New Jersey’s 565 municipalities to understand the full scope of the problem.
“I’m grateful that New Brunswick will end its ban on begging, and I know that it will have an immediate effect on the lives of others who rely on the generosity of their neighbors to get by,” said John Fleming, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “No one should have to fear the police just because of what is written on their sign.”
In a remarkable bit of timing this week, the New Jersey state Senate failed in a vote to over-ride a veto by Governor Christie of legislation that would have imposed for the first time strict legal requirements for more transparent governance at the scandal-plagued Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
What was so remarkable about the timing?
Republicans in the Senate went jelly-legged during Sunshine Week, a seven-day celebration of openness and transparency in government that began after the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 2002 beat back attempts by the Florida Legislature to create some 300 exemptions to its open meetings laws. Its name, however, comes from an idea voiced a century ago by U. S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In describing the need for public oversight of elected officials, Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And the point is to draw public attention to the necessity of laws that require government officials and elected leaders to conduct business in full view of the public.
The PA veto over-ride in New Jersey failed even though the bill, sponsored by open government champions Sens. Bob Gordon and Loretta Weinberg, had previously won unanimous approval of both the Senate and the Assembly. The failure of the bill to win approval “means the port authority is still vulnerable to abuse and commuters remain at risk of schemes that take more of their hard-earned money out of their pockets,” Gordon said.
The response to the governor’s veto doesn’t necessarily mean everything is rotten in Trenton, but it does demonstrate quite clearly that not all elected officials put a premium on the need to be held publicly accountable for their actions.
As a bi-state agency, the PANYNJ is not subject to the governmental transparency laws of New Jersey or New York, even though it has a budget larger than many states. Indeed, it was only through dogged reporting, led by The Record of Bergen County, that the notorious “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email from a Christie aide to a PA official was discovered and launched the political scandal over the closure of traffic lanes onto the George Washington Bridge.
The PA is but one example of the need for greater transparency and accountability in government.
In recognition of Sunshine Week, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is offering up its own ideas for bringing New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act into the 21st Century.
“Open government is a cornerstone of democracy that enables advocates, activists and the press to monitor government performance and expose corruption,” ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg said. “The transparency of government activities enables access to critical information needed to shine a light on government performance and expose corruption."
In addition to the ideas for strengthening accountability – including adopting policies to ensure proper retention of government emails and texts that are made on private systems , creating websites where individuals can find publically-available information regarding their municipality, and strengthening the existing language of NJ’s transparency laws – the ACLU-NJ is highlighting five important government transparency cases that established the right to videotape public meetings, create privacy safeguards for automated license plate readers and closed loopholes in the existing open meetings and records law.
The ACLU-NJ celebrated a groundbreaking victory for New Jersey with the signing of a new law that adds oversight to local law enforcement agencies’ acquisition of surplus military equipment. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed S2364, sponsored by Senator Nia Gill and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, into law on March 16, New Jersey became the first state to require approval from local legislative bodies before municipalities and counties can obtain military equipment through the Department of Defense’s “1033 program.”
"This victory represents a critical step forward for accountability and transparency in our towns and cities,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “For the first time ever, New Jerseyans will have a say in the decisions to acquire military weaponry being made in their name. While war winds down overseas, we must ensure that the flow of millions of dollars’ worth of surplus military weapons and equipment does not turn our communities into battlefields.”
Under the new law, local governing bodies will have to approve these acquisitions before towns can receive them. In recent decades, New Jersey law enforcement agencies have acquired nearly $33 million’s worth of military equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and assault rifles, among other inventory.
In July 2014, Bergen County came under fire for seeking two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and the ACLU-NJ mobilized Bergen County activists against the move. Ultimately, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department withdrew the request.
In addition to signing S2364, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed S2365, a companion bill that would have given the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General additional oversight over the transfer of military equipment from the federal government to New Jersey counties and towns.
“The increasing militarization of police departments is a civil rights and liberties problem across the United States,” Rosmarin added. “We are proud that New Jersey is the first state in the nation to enact a law of this kind calling on local elected officials and community members to curb the growing militarization of local cops. The Governor’s decision to veto S2365, however, was a disappointment. Boosting transparency and establishing robust state-level oversight remain priorities and we look forward to working with legislative leaders and the administration to find a path forward toward accountability."
The ACLU has identified significant civil rights and civil liberties threats from the militarization of local police departments, as documented in the report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” It found that nearly 80 percent of SWAT team deployments were for executing search warrants, and it reported on racial disparities in SWAT raids. Other states, including Massachusetts, are currently considering similar legislation adding oversight to local jurisdictions’ acquisition of military equipment.
The ACLU-NJ expressed disappointment with the New Jersey State Senate today for failing to override Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill to transform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) that passed the Senate unanimously.
The legislation, S2181, sponsored by Senators Robert Gordon and Loretta Weinberg, would have established critical independent transparency standards for the bi-state agency, whose failures of accountability garnered national attention in the wake of the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures.
New Jersey lawmakers voted on an override of the veto on March 16 but failed to secure enough votes, with 25 in favor and 14 voting against. In order for laws pertaining to the bi-state agency to be enforceable, New York and New Jersey must each enact parallel versions of the legislation. The New York legislature has already reintroduced its counterpart to S2181 following a veto from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during that state’s 2014 legislative session.
“Time is long past for dragging the Port Authority out of its own muck and directing some disinfecting sunshine at it. History has shown that we cannot trust the Port Authority to police itself,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The legislature unanimously supported bringing the Port Authority into the 21st Century by passing transparency and accountability measures. The Senate needed to show that same conviction now by overriding the governor’s veto, and it fell far short of what the people of New Jersey need. This nearly $8 billion agency impacts the daily lives of millions of New Jerseyans and we cannot afford to allow it to continue to avoid oversight. Today’s vote constitutes a sad day for transparency and accountability in New Jersey.”
As a bi-state agency, the PANYNJ is not subject to the governmental transparency laws of New Jersey or New York, despite operating with a budget that surpasses most states’. Among other accountability provisions, S2181 would take significant steps to addressing this loophole by applying important open public meetings rules to the Port Authority.
“S2181 would have been a critical first step for the Port Authority and we support override of the Governor’s veto,” said ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg. “But the legislature today let the people of New Jersey down. We need accountability, both through S2181 and through follow-up legislation to ensure New Jerseyans can effectively enforce the open meetings requirements for the Port Authority in court. We will continue to push for accountability at the Port Authority.”
S2183, a companion bill supported by the ACLU-NJ and conditionally vetoed by Governor Christie in January, would subject the Port Authority to New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
The longstanding issue of transparency failures at the Port Authority drew widespread public attention in late 2013, when news of the Christie administration’s involvement in the closure of traffic lanes on the George Washing Bridge emerged. However, lawmakers and transparency advocates have attempted to shine a light on the workings of the Port Authority for years. In July 2012, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would have given the public greater access to financial and procedural dealings at the Port Authority, among other reforms.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the New Jersey Department of Health’s refusal to provide public records regarding the development and implementation of state policies and protocols about exposure to the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD).
“The state of New Jersey must be transparent about the scientific information and health policy thinking used to formulate and implement these statewide rules,” ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer said. “The public must be assured that these policy decisions are being guided by science, not fear.”
The ACLU-NJ made a request on Oct. 30 to the New Jersey Department of Health under the state’s Open Public Records Act for emails and other correspondence from specific officials in the Department of Health that contained several key words, including Ebola, EVD, quarantine, isolation or screening. It also sought correspondence with county departments of health.
The state requested several lengthy delays in responding to the request, including a final demand for a delay on Dec. 22, at which time the ACLU-NJ gave Jan. 15 as the absolute deadline for a response.
On Jan. 14, the records custodian for the Department denied the ACLU-NJ request alleging it was overly broad and required research and also suggesting that the records sought fell under OPRA exemptions for material that is advisory, consultative or deliberative.
“The department’s refusal is unjustified because the request was very specific,” said Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ Legal Director. “Not only did it take them ten weeks to respond, but the department refused to conduct a simple search of its computer files.”
The lawsuit filed late Monday challenges the denial on several counts, especially the state’s contention that the request wasn’t specific enough and that a key word search of email is “research” that would require creation of a new government record.
The ACLU-NJ noted that OPRA does not permit a records custodian to issue a blanket rejection of all emails as falling within the deliberative material exemption to OPRA.
Finally, the ACLU-NJ argues that, given that the State considered the request itself invalid, it clearly engaged in delay after delay without justification, in violation of OPRA. Since it believed the request invalid, DOH should have issued a denial soon after receipt of the request, rather than making the ACLU-NJ wait two months for that rejection and making it appear that a search for records was occurring during that time.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the state in violation of the Open Public Record Act, levy a fine and compel the defendants to immediately provide copies of the requested records.
The case is captioned ACLU of New Jersey v. Department of Health and is filed in Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer County. Read the verified complaint and brief.
NEWARK — Prohibition has failed in New Jersey, and it’s time for common-sense reforms that will legalize, tax and regulate the personal use of marijuana by adults.
That was the message delivered Wednesday by New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform — a new, broad-based coalition from New Jersey’s public safety, medical, civil rights, and criminal justice reform communities — at a news conference to announce the launch of its statewide campaign to control, tax and regulate marijuana.
The event marked the formal launch of the campaign and introduced its lead partners from across the state:
In the coming year, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform will work with allies and volunteers from across the state to build broad consensus in support of legalization from northern to southern New Jersey, across political lines, and from the public health and law enforcement communities. New Jerseyans will stand united in ending our state’s prohibition on marijuana.
"Today, we are launching this coalition because the status quo has failed, and it’s time to begin fixing our criminal justice system by ending unjust and discriminatory marijuana arrests,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey.
“New Jersey police make tens of thousands of arrests every year for marijuana possession even though the majority of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal,” Ofer said. “It’s time to stop turning otherwise law-abiding adults into criminals. It’s time to take marijuana out of the parks and street corners and into a regulated and licensed system for adults. “
New Jersey wastes more than $127 million enforcing marijuana laws every year, according to the 2013 ACLU report “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” Legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana would bring New Jersey significant revenue through a controlled marketplace, creating jobs and opportunities to reinvest in our communities. Law enforcement resources that could be better used to protect public safety would be preserved while reducing corrections and court costs associated with small marijuana possession arrests.
“As a municipal prosecutor, I have had to waste countless taxpayer dollars and hours of police officers’ time to prosecute New Jerseyans, usually just over a joint,” said Jon-Henry Barr, Esq., President of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutor's Association. “It's brought me to the point where I believe that legalization and regulation are the only way to ensure that prosecutors are not wasting precious taxpayer resources and that we have the time to prosecute serious crimes.”
Law enforcement officials have been some of the most vocal supporters of taxing, regulating and controlling marijuana use and distribution, pointing to the public safety costs of maintaining the status quo.
“New Jersey’s marijuana policies have failed, and continue to fail to effectively address the problems of drug abuse, especially the problems of juvenile drug use, the problems of addiction, and the problems of crime caused by the existence of a criminal market in drugs,” said Lieutenant Jack Cole (Ret.), a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police, and co-founder and board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Regulation of marijuana will enhance public safety by striking a blow to the illegal drug market and will free up New Jersey law enforcement resources to focus on serious crime.”
New Jersey police make more than 21,000 arrests every year for marijuana possession. These arrests disproportionately affect New Jersey’s black community according to the ACLU report. The consequences of being arrested for possession of even a small amount of marijuana can include up to six months in jail, loss of job and driver’s license suspension, and more than $1,000 in fees and fines.
“New Jersey’s marijuana laws are failing people of color. Black people in New Jersey are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates,” said Richard Smith, President of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “Today’s announcement is a game-changer for our community. Marijuana regulation will eliminate thousands of arrests per year and provide new sources of revenue to invest in our communities for education, jobs and public safety.”
For the vast majority of people who consume marijuana today, the greatest harms are not health-related. They are the criminal and civil sanctions that can prohibit them from securing employment, housing or an education.
“Throughout my career as a clinical psychiatrist, I have borne witness to the devastation brought upon marijuana users — not so much by misuse of the drug, but by a justice system that uses a sledgehammer to kill a weed. Currently, the criminal consequences of marijuana use are far worse than the medical consequences, and this is a national tragedy,” said Dr. David Nathan, MD, a Princeton-based psychiatrist. “Marijuana possession should be legal for adults, and we should use revenues from marijuana taxation to educate young people about the actual harms caused by its recreational use.”
In addition to the leadership of NJUMR, organizations and individuals from across New Jersey have endorsed the launch of the campaign, including:
The NJUMR steering committee also announced the launch of www.NJMarijuanaReform.org, a clearinghouse for information and activism in support of controlling, taxing and regulating adult marijuana use and possession.
New Jersey would become the fifth state to reform its marijuana laws by creating a regulated system. Ballot measures to legalize marijuana passed in Colorado and Washington in 2012, andin Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in 2014.
Members of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, a coalition of groups committed to ending solitary confinement, as currently practiced in New Jersey's jails and prisons, testified today in favor of a bill to severely restrict its use. The bill, S-2588, sponsored by State Senators Peter Barnes III and Raymond Lesniak, would impose limits and safeguards that have been shown to improve both institutional and community safety.
“I’ve been on both sides of solitary confinement, and I know that many people think of it as a temporary punishment that lasts only as long as the isolation itself,” said Terrell A. Blount, a student in Rutgers University’s Master of Public Administration program. “Based on what I’ve seen working with men who have served long sentences, some who served 10 years in isolation, solitary confinement is a sentence that lasts a lifetime. At the age of 21, I entered solitary myself, and I was assaulted by a man twice my age with a sentence four times longer than my own. Most people who serve time in solitary will re-enter society. And when they do, we should ask ourselves if we want them to be haunted by the torture they endured, or if we want them in a position where they can make the greatest contributions to society as possible. New Jersey needs this bill signed into law, as do the countless men and women in our state who have been subjected to the unjust and inhumane practice most commonly called solitary confinement.”
Specifically, S-2588 would:
“Long-term solitary confinement is cruel, it’s expensive, and it’s ineffective,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “This bill has the potential to bring New Jersey in line with other states across the country, from New York to Mississippi, that have made their prisons safer and increased the safety of society. Long term solitary confinement is clearly recognized as torture, and it’s time New Jersey took steps to bring its use to an end. This bill is the best opportunity we’ve had.”
In effect, the bill would encourage corrections authorities to seek effective safe alternatives and use isolation only as a last resort, in contrast to its current status as a routine form of punishment.
Solitary confinement refers to the practice of locking people in small cells for 20 or more hours at a time, whether alone or with others, without any sensory or mental stimulation. Research has clearly shown that such confinement inflicts devastating, sometimes irreparable trauma, especially for young people and people with mental illnesses. Studies have widely shown solitary confinement to be an expensive and ineffective practice that compromises safety inside correctional institutions as well as public safety in the community, where it interferes with successful prisoner re-entry and is associated with increased recidivism.
“There are so many reasons not to use solitary confinement: the often permanent mental trauma, the increased violence, the added difficulties prisoners face upon reentry,” said Bonnie Kerness, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program. “The isolation and lack of human contact is considered no-touch torture, and for the sake of human rights, civil rights, and political rights, we must abolish it, and that starts here today with this bill.”
Across the country, other states have improved corrections operations and public safety by instituting alternatives to solitary confinement. Most recently, New York severely limited its use of solitary confinement with legislation similar to S-5288, banning the solitary confinement of juveniles and people with mental illness. Washington state uses segregated housing sparingly, incorporating tactics such as restricting privileges. Maine State Prison’s institutional violence decreased as a result of a reduction in use of solitary confinement. When Mississippi reduced its isolation of prisoners, the state not only saw drastic declines in prison violence, but saved more than $5 million.
“Roughly 95 percent of those currently incarcerated will one day return home to our communities,” said the Rev. Charles F. Boyer, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Somerset, NJ, and a member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “We believe it is a moral imperative that these individuals, our neighbors, return home prepared to contribute meaningfully within their communities.”
The ACLU-NJ in 2013 filed a petition with the Juvenile Justice Commission to end the solitary confinement of children as punishment, and in 2014 filed a lawsuit on behalf of an inmate with multiple mental disorders held in solitary for months at a time in the Middlesex County Jail. While juveniles and people with mental illness in particular are most vulnerable to the devastating, permanent effects of solitary confinement, the practice inflicts heavy psychological damage in all groups of people.
“It is now past time to stop subjecting human beings in State custody to long term isolation, by supporting S2588 today, said attorney Jean Ross, a member of the People’s Organization for Progress. “In New Jersey, the time to end this practice is now, and the way to end it is with this legislation. Because our state was the first to legislatively abolish the death penalty, we are optimistic that the New Jersey Legislature will also take this step to demonstrate that there are more effective and humane ways to keep us safe.”
NEWARK - The New Jersey Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in Guaman v. Velez, an immigrant rights case in which the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey submitted an amicus brief (PDF) challenging the state’s discriminatory cuts to a state health insurance program for low-wage workers.
The lawsuit challenges the state policy that denied participation in the state’s FamilyCare program to immigrants who have been lawful permanent residents less than five years. New Jersey FamilyCare is a state-funded Medicaid program that provides subsidized health insurance to qualifying low-income adults and children. At least 12,000 working residents, who would be otherwise eligible for the program, are affected by these cuts.
The ACLU-NJ’s brief argues that New Jersey violated the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the laws. The state Appellate Court ruled in August 2013 that the state was permitted to exclude the lawful permanent residents because it linked it’s policy to a “uniform federal standard” governing all Medicaid funding.
The following statement about the case and the oral arguments may be attributed to Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of NJ:
“The imposition of a residency requirement on otherwise-eligible lawful permanent residents — requirements not placed on citizens — violates both the federal and state constitutional guarantee to equal protection.
“The issue is all the more important because of the health care consequences to thousands of working residents. The State's decision to deny benefits can result in more high-cost emergency room visits, a lack of preventative care, and seriously ill individuals who delay seeking treatment.”
Acting Dean of Rutgers Law School – Newark Ronald Chen argued the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ.
The New Jersey Supreme Court today handed down a ruling (PDF) affirming that a parent is not guilty of child abuse just for admitting to cursing and using off-color language. The ACLU-NJ argued as a friend of the court in State of New Jersey v. Tate that a foster father’s vague description of having cursed and used off-color language in front of his child as part of a guilty plea -- which he requested to withdraw -- was not strong enough evidence of habitual use of obscenity.
“Today’s decision rejects the dangerous notion that offensive language alone amounts to a crime,” said CJ Griffin of the law firm Pashman Stein, who authored the brief (PDF) and argued on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “We’re pleased that the Court recognized that a defendant’s admission to having used curse words and off-color language in front of a child was too vague on details to make him guilty of abuse on that basis alone.”
The ACLU-NJ also argued that the one-hundred-year-old law should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, but the Supreme Court decided it did not need to address that issue in this case.
“We’re gratified with the court’s decision to safeguard lawful speech by requiring trial courts to obtain factually sufficient guilty pleas,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “The law in question at the center of this case, however, still raises serious constitutional problems, and we hope those issues can be resolved either through the legislature or through the courts.”