Christie Tramples Human Rights with Veto of Solitary Confinement Reforms

December 5, 2016
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Veto means most vulnerable people in NJ’s prisons and jails will suffer, and jeopardizes safety

The ACLU-NJ strongly criticized Christie’s veto of S51, legislation that would have stopped the abuse of solitary confinement. He announced his veto through a statement (PDF) that mischaracterized what the bill would have done and revealed a lack of understanding of how solitary confinement is used in New Jersey.

Solitary confinement is defined as being held in a cell or enclosed space for 22 hours a day or longer, either alone or with another inmate, with severely restricted activity, movement and social interaction.

This bill: 

  • Banned solitary confinement for the most vulnerable populations, including children, people who have mental illnesses, pregnant women, and people with various disabilities.
  • Prohibited solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a 60-day period.
  • Required medical clearance and daily evaluations for prisoners in solitary confinement.

Alex ShalomThe following statement is from ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom:

“Today, Governor Christie used his office to perpetrate an injustice rather than end one. Christie chose to make the most vulnerable people in our prisons and jails continue to suffer for no good reason, and he chose to make all of us, including corrections officers, less safe.

“Christie’s veto of solitary confinement reform means that on any given day hundreds of New Jersey inmates, if not thousands, will be punished through a practice widely considered torture, and for no one’s benefit.

“The Department of Corrections covers its eyes to the reality of solitary confinement, and Christie helps pass out the blindfolds. They continue to peddle their fiction that solitary confinement does not exist in New Jersey, but we have a simple message: Facts still matter, Governor Christie. In prisons and jails throughout New Jersey, people continue to suffer from solitary confinement every day, no matter what you call it.

“The broad coalition of supporters of the bill worked with county jail wardens, corrections officers’ unions, and mental health experts to ensure that the bill represented best practices in the corrections field. The Christie Administration, however, blinded itself to reality and refused to answer even the most basic questions.

“We have no doubt that New Jersey will put this barbaric practice behind it soon. Meanwhile, thanks to the Governor’s callous veto, countless New Jerseyans will continue to suffer under his watch.”

In August, the ACLU-NJ won a case on behalf of a prisoner, Rigoberto Mejia, a mentally ill prisoner who had been sentenced to nearly three years of solitary confinement. The decision (PDF) in the case excoriated the Department of Corrections for its treatment of Mejia and its violations of its own regulations. The judge also pointed to obvious holes in the claim that solitary confinement does not exist in New Jersey and lambasted the DOC’s mental health screening standards: The DOC performed a cursory mental health screening through a locked cell door in English. For example, during Mejia’s time in solitary confinement, the DOC concluded from his silence during questioning — while behind a wall with a closed door, and under a bed sheet, with no one able to see his face — that he did not need mental health services.

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ACLU-NJ Settles with 5 Districts Whose Forms Hindered Immigrant Students

November 21, 2016
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Schools’ forms violated students’ civil rights despite nearly 10 years of warnings about unconstitutionality

The ACLU-NJ has settled all five lawsuits filed against four districts and a charter school whose published registration information hindered enrollment of immigrant students. The districts and charter school had required parents to produce identification that someone without a Social Security number or valid immigration status cannot obtain.

The ACLU-NJ on October 17 sued Fair Lawn School District in Bergen County, Jersey City Global Charter School in Hudson County, Jamesburg School District and Spotswood School District in Middlesex County, and Port Republic School District in Atlantic County. While there was no evidence that any of the schools had turned away immigrant students, the law is clear that such registration requirements are impermissible because they may prevent students from even attempting to register.

In each case, officials agreed to remove the offending requirement from its forms, to clarify on registration information that documents revealing immigration status will not be required, and to reimburse the ACLU-NJ for the filing fees associated with the lawsuits.

“The ACLU of New Jersey is grateful that the districts recognized the clarity of the law on this issue and quickly settled all of the cases,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “But registration issues persist throughout the state. The Department of Education must assume responsibility for auditing districts’ compliance with laws resigned to ensure fair access to education for all New Jerseyans.”

Pivotal Police Accountability Case Argued at NJ Supreme Court

November 9, 2016
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ACLU-NJ urges access to footage and reports related to fatal shooting by police 

The ACLU-NJ made arguments for police accountability in North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst, a pivotal case at the New Jersey Supreme Court case that could determine the future of police transparency in New Jersey.

Along with North Jersey Media Group’s attorneys and other transparency advocates, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom argued that upholding a lower court’s ruling in the case could potentially shield basic information about police actions from the public unless the police choose to share it.

“Community trust in police, which is hard to gain and difficult to maintain, will disappear if police executives become the gatekeepers of public records,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “The role of police in society demands more transparency, not less.”

This case concerns records – including dashboard camera footage and police ”use of force” reports – related to the 2014 police shooting of Kashad Ashford.

“New Jersey officials have already used the lower court ruling to justify cloaking the police in secrecy,” said ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg. “Police transparency in New Jersey hangs in the balance in this case, a time when transparency could not be more urgent.”

It is especially important amid dozens of high-profile police killings, and in particular killings of people of color, captured on film in recent years. Such incidents around the country have led to calls for police body cameras with public access to the footage as a tool for police accountability. This case could threaten to prevent the public of New Jersey from accessing dashcam or bodycam footage and other materials, canceling out any gains in transparency.

The ACLU-NJ’s friend-of-the-court brief was also filed on behalf of eight other civil rights organizations: the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, Black Lives Matter - New Jersey, Garden State Bar Association, Garden State Equality, Latino Action Network, Latino Leadership Alliance, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and People’s Organization for Progress. The brief contended that our state’s transparency law dictates that the public should have access to the records sought by North Jersey Media Group.

“New Jersey communities must have access to basic information to hold police accountable for the actions they take as agents of our government,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “We grant police extraordinary power, including the power to take a life. In exchange, law enforcement has an obligation to let the public understand the actions taken to protect and serve.”

Read the ACLU-NJ’s Supreme Court brief in North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst. (PDF)

Man Jailed for Not Immediately Paying Ticket Deserves Justice

October 27, 2016
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Burlington court's actions amounted to modern-day debtors' prison

Burlington Township Municipal Court acted akin to a modern-day debtors’ prison when it ordered a man to serve jail time because he could not immediately pay court costs, said a federal lawsuit (PDF) the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey joined yesterday.

The lawsuit, initially filed in 2015, charges that the municipal court violated the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions by depriving Anthony Kneisser, and likely others who came before the court, of due process and discriminating against him based on income.

Kneisser, a 20-year-old student and part-time line cook earning $9 an hour at the time, was ticketed for flicking a cigarette butt out of his car in 2014. Unable to pay the $239 he owed, he went to municipal court to try to set up a payment plan or arrange community service. The judge refused and ordered Kneisser to call people he knew for money. Kneisser told the judge he didn’t have anyone to call, and he was sentenced to five days in jail. Officials immediately handcuffed him and placed him under arrest.

“It was humiliating to be treated like a criminal just for being broke,” Kneisser said. “I couldn’t believe I was being sentenced to jail for not being able to pay a ticket for littering. Some people in the courtroom gasped, and others laughed at the idea of being jailed over a $200 littering ticket. At my job at the time, $200 was one week’s pay. I filed this suit to get justice, not just for myself, but to make sure that no one else has to go through what I went through, or worse, for being broke.”

Kneisser immediately thought about what would happen to his dog, who would have been left alone for five days. Kneisser feared for his job if he had to miss several days without notice. In the holding cell, Kneisser wasn’t allowed to use the phone at first and worried about how he would explain to his mother, whose car he had borrowed, where her vehicle was.

Fortunately, Kneisser’s family was able to bail him out. Earlier, his father had told him he couldn’t help pay the ticket and suggested he go to court to try to set up a payment plan instead. But once Anthony faced the prospect of jail, his father realized the situation had gotten more urgent.

“It’s unconstitutional for a municipal court to send someone to jail — to rip someone from their job, their family, and their everyday life — for not being able to pay a fine. The court’s actions amount to a modern-day debtors’ prison,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, one of the attorneys representing Kneisser. “Municipal courts should take a person’s ability to pay into account and make sure no one goes to jail without first having access to a lawyer.”

The ACLU-NJ has reason to believe that he is not the only low-income New Jerseyan who has been jailed for not having money to pay court fines.

“The six million cases before municipal courts each year in New Jersey routinely end in hefty fines and jail time,” says ACLU-NJ Legal Fellow Alexi Velez, who is spending a year studying the role of municipal courts in the criminalization of poverty through a grant from the Maida Fellowship Program at Rutgers Law School. “When people cannot afford to pay the fines and fees courts impose, the snowballing debts can quickly become insurmountable and risk of jail time increases. The role of these courts as revenue generators and debt collectors can undermine their purpose and challenge their integrity.”

More than 30 years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that jailing people because of inability to pay court fines and fees is an affront to American values and the Constitution. In that 1983 case, the court made a distinction between unwillingness to pay and inability to pay. Federal law has banned debtors’ prisons since 1833.

“A person’s freedom should not be conditioned on money they do not have,” said Marguerite Kneisser of the law firm Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, LLC, who initiated the lawsuit and serves as co-counsel with the ACLU-NJ. She is Anthony Kneisser’s sister. “What happened to Anthony erodes public faith in our democratic institutions and goes against what our Constitution stands for.”

Kneisser filed the civil rights lawsuit in September 2015 in United States District Court. The docket number is 1:15-cv-07043.

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U.S. District Court Complaint (PDF)

Middletown Rally Sends Message Chilling Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

October 21, 2016
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In advance of a rally planned by police at Middletown High School South as a tribute to law enforcement, military personnel, and first responders in symbolic opposition to Colin Kaepernick’s protests against oppression of people of color, the ACLU-NJ, the Central Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Greater Long Branch NAACP sent a letter (PDF) to school officials expressing civil rights and civil liberties concerns. The rally is planned for Friday Oct 21, at 6:30 p.m., before the Middletown High School South vs. Toms River High School North Asbury Park Press football game between the two top-ranked teams on the Jersey Shore.

The event has been expected to include over 100 uniformed personnel, bands from across the state, and a flyover by the New Jersey State Police Aviation Unit.

The Constitution and New Jersey law does not compel anyone — athletes or otherwise — to participate in this rally. The ACLU-NJ provides information to inform members of the public of your right to protest, your rights with police, and the rights of students with regard to police in a school setting (PDF).

Representatives from the ACLU-NJ and Central New Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives issue the following statements.

Dianna HouenouThe following quotes can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou:

“Communities across New Jersey often recognize the contributions of law enforcement and first responders, but these recognitions should not have the effect of intimidating people with views on systemic racism and social justice. It is a disservice to students and players that an event that should focus on them, their families, and their communities is being used to send a message that people who express concerns about disparities in the criminal justice system are unwelcome, disloyal or unpatriotic.

“Defending the right to protest is more than a symbolic gesture — it means accepting the lawful expression of free speech, even if others disagree with the content. The police have a duty to defend the rights of protesters, not to use such a large-scale display of force that effectively silences people with differing viewpoints.

“The idea that patriotism requires suppression of criticism violates the very ideals that define our country at its best. And indeed, efforts to criticize voices that demand justice and equality speak to the impulses of our country at its worst.

“The criticism the deputy police chief expressed for people who decline to stand for the national anthem in protest serves to erect walls between police and the communities they serve. The people police are sworn to protect and serve should not have to fear that the value officers assign to them is determined by the beliefs they hold.”

Jasmine CrenshawThe following quotes can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Organizer Jasmine Crenshaw:

“We were disturbed to learn that this rally was a deliberate response to the calls of NFL player Colin Kaepernick and others for the just treatment of people of color amid systemic racism and police violence. Middletown’s deputy police chief said he wants to use high school athletes to send a message to professional athletes that everyone should stand up for the national anthem. However, people should be free to express their own opinions about the national anthem and what it stands for, and they should not feel coerced into acting on someone else’s beliefs or ostracized if they refuse to.

“The statements made by the deputy police chief and the event’s ostentatious show of power send an ominous, frightening message: that, as an official stance, law enforcement will not tolerate expressions acknowledging our nation’s history of unequal treatment and systematic oppression.

“Entrance to one of the biggest sporting events in the area should not require that someone accept an atmosphere that suppresses political protest. The magnitude of this event chills the belief that police should be held accountable when they abuse their power or discriminate against people of color, and pressures student athletes to act as props of the police.”

Eugene M. StewartThe following quote can be attributed to Eugene M. Stewart, President of the Central New Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives:

“Sworn law enforcement officers undertake an oath swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment and the protection of freedom of speech are a part of that Constitution. Counter to that oath, if what has been written about the event tonight in the Asbury Park Press is accurate, there will be law enforcement officers, in uniform, participating in a counter-protest to a protected right of the U.S. Constitution. This contradicts that constitutional oath, and it’s inappropriate for a State Police helicopter and other taxpayer-funded state resources to support this event.

“As NOBLE, we stand steadfast in support of the men and women who don the uniform in service and wear the badge of courage and integrity each and every day. It is with that same resolve we stand to ensure even if we do not personally agree with the actions of an individual, we respect the right of said individual and as sworn, we will protect the right of that individual or group of individuals.”

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Legislature Passes Historic Solitary Confinement Restrictions in NJ

October 20, 2016
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Assembly vote sends human rights measure to Christie’s desk

With a historic vote in the New Jersey Assembly, the Legislature today passed a bill to restrict solitary confinement in New Jersey’s prisons and jails. The bill aims to end the routine use of the tactic and bar its use on New Jersey’s most vulnerable prison populations. The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin in the Assembly and Senator Ray Lesniak in the Senate, now goes to Governor Christie’s desk. The ACLU-NJ, clergy members, and human rights organizations such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture urge the Governor to sign the bill into law.

“This is a watershed moment for civil rights and human rights in New Jersey,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “We thank Assemblywoman Pinkin and Senator Lesniak for their leadership and strong sense of conscience in advocating for more humane treatment of prisoners. We urge Governor Christie act on his compassion by quickly signing this bill. New Jersey can show the rest of the country what more humane solitary confinement looks like.”

The bill, S51:

  • Requires facilities to use solitary confinement — being held in a cell or enclosed space for 22 hours a day or longer, either alone or with another inmate, with severely restricted activity, movement and social interaction – only as a last resort.
  • Prohibits solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a 60-day period.
  • Bans isolation for the most vulnerable populations, including people who have mental illnesses, pregnant women, LGBTQ people, and people with various disabilities.
  • Requires medical clearance and daily evaluations for prisoners in solitary confinement.

“We thank the Legislature for its national leadership on criminal justice reform by curbing our state’s addiction to solitary confinement,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “We now call on Governor Christie to honor his commitment to fix our broken criminal justice system. The overwhelming harms of solitary confinement make the practice little more than cruelty for cruelty’s sake.”

Administrative segregation units, a form of solitary confinement, are more expensive to maintain than normal incarceration conditions. By shifting away from these units, the ACLU-NJ calculated that the state could ultimately save more than $5 million per year by cutting solitary confinement by 50 percent, based on conservative estimates. More importantly, the ACLU-NJ and human rights organizations say, solitary confinement is considered a form of torture. Solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illnesses, and it can bring on mental illness where it didn’t exist before.

In New Jersey, the ACLU-NJ has brought several legal cases challenging the abuse and misuse of solitary confinement. One man, P.D., was held in solitary for months at a time in the Middlesex County Jail despite the harms solitary confinement poses on individuals with mental illnesses, such as P.D. The ACLU-NJ represents a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Middlesex County Jail who cannot receive visits from family members while in solitary confinement. This summer, the ACLU-NJ won a victory on behalf of a man who was given more than three years of solitary confinement for throwing a bucket of water mixed with feces.

New Jersey is part of a national trend in restricting the use of solitary confinement. Earlier this year, the federal government enacted similar restrictions on solitary confinement in federal prisons and jails. Many states have severely limited the use of solitary confinement, resulting in greater public safety and savings in state budgets.

Some examples of infractions that have resulted in solitary confinement in New Jersey include:

  • A man in New Jersey State Prison received 90 days in solitary confinement for using obscene language to a staff member, despite the fact that witnesses said the officer was the one who used foul language, not the inmate.
  • An inmate acting as an informal “jailhouse lawyer” received an 810-day solitary confinement sentence for providing legal help to female prisoners filing in a class-action civil rights suit. Letters from attorneys were considered “contraband.” 
  • A man received 180 days of solitary confinement because he was prescribed 50 mg of Benadryl, and he had two 25-mg pills rather than a single pill.

The Department of Corrections has claimed that solitary confinement does not take place in New Jersey facilities. Rather, it uses the label “restrictive housing units,” a difference in terminology that amounts to the same practice. For that reason, the Department of Corrections has stated it cannot participate in estimating the fiscal impact of solitary confinement reform.

Senate Votes for Independent Investigations When Police Use Fatal Force

October 20, 2016
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Bill requiring independent investigations and prosecutions when police take a life passes Senate

The New Jersey Senate today passed S2469, a bill requiring independent investigations when someone dies at the hands of law enforcement. A broad coalition of civil rights, clergy, and labor groups — including the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Clergy Coalition for Justice, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and the ACLU-NJ — advocated for this bill as an important first step to guaranteeing accountability when police officers wrongfully use their power.

The ACLU-NJ included independent investigations for police violence as a top priority in its five-point blueprint for police reform released this summer.
Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou

The ACLU-NJ issues the following statement, which can be attributed to ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou:

“Giving people confidence that investigations into police violence will be independent is a key part of building trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. We give police officers extraordinary power, including the power to take a life. The public deserves to hold law enforcement accountable when officers abuse those powers wrongfully.

“We strongly commend Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Ronald L. Rice and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg for their leadership on this fundamental civil rights issue, and we thank the senators who voted for it. We urge members of the Assembly to pass this critically important legislation quickly.

“This bill establishes that, as a baseline standard, investigations will not be tainted by a conflict of interest or the perception of one. The public deserves the security of knowing that an investigation into the most serious action officers could take is conducted as impartially as possible.

“This bill marks an important step in creating police accountability in New Jersey – but we need to go even further. Police misconduct does not have to result in death to create a tragedy, and investigations must be independent whenever serious injuries during police interactions occur. For the sake of the living victims and those who bear the scars of police abuse, more must be done. The yes vote in the Senate today is a promising start.”

The following groups advocated in coalition for S2469:

1199SEIU, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee, Bethany Baptist Church (Newark), Bethel AME Church (Pennington), Bethel AME Church (Woodbury), Black Lives Matter Morristown, Black Lives Matter Paterson, Black Lives Matter New Jersey, Church of the Good Shepherd (Willingboro), Clergy Coalition for Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, Faith in New Jersey, Garden State Equality, Latino Action Network, Latino Leadership Alliance, Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, Make the Road New Jersey, Morris County NAACP, NAACP – New Jersey State Conference, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, National Organization for Women – NJ, New Jersey Black Issues Convention, New Jersey Citizen Action, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Advocacy, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, New Jersey Parents Caucus, New Jersey Policy Perspective, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, New Jersey Working Families Alliance, Salvation and Social Justice, Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry

ACLU-NJ Sues School Districts That Discriminate Against Immigrants

October 18, 2016
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After surveying school districts’ enrollment policies periodically for close to a decade, the ACLU-NJ took legal action against five New Jersey school districts for putting up barriers to enrollment for the children of undocumented immigrants. These four districts and a charter school, from four counties, all have policies requiring documents that demonstrate immigration status as a condition of enrollment, in violation of the Constitution and state law. 

All children residing in a district have a right to enroll in school, and school districts are forbidden from excluding them based on their or their parents’ immigration status. The ACLU-NJ calls on the state Department of Education (DOE) to take a more active role in enforcing civil rights laws in public education. The DOE should provide districts with model enrollment forms and conduct regular audits to ensure compliance.

Fair Lawn School District (PDF) in Bergen County, Jersey City Global Charter School (PDF) in Hudson County, Jamesburg School District (PDF) and Spotswood School District (PDF) in Middlesex County, and Port Republic School District (PDF) in Atlantic County each prevent the enrollment of immigrant students by requiring identification that someone without a Social Security number or valid immigration status cannot obtain.

ACLU-NJ’s lawsuits ask the courts to halt these unconstitutional school registration requirements immediately. The organization calls on the State DOE to monitor such policies vigilantly and to take swift action against schools that violate it.

“The ACLU of New Jersey can’t play a perpetual game of whack-a-mole with New Jersey school districts, and we shouldn’t have to,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “It’s the job of the Department of Education to make sure New Jersey school districts are following the Constitution, and they must take that duty seriously. The law is clear: schools cannot discriminate, and they should be held accountable when they do.”

Specifically, the districts required documents from parents that are not available to undocumented immigrants:

  • Spotswood, Port Republic – Driver’s licenses
  • Jamesburg – New Jersey-issued driver’s license
  • Fair Lawn – Driver’s licenses and automobile registration
  • Jersey City Global Charter School – “State ID”

These four school districts and one charter school have maintained their discriminatory policies despite the ACLU-NJ’s repeated warnings over the years that these restrictions violate students’ rights and make the districts vulnerable to legal action. 

Stemming in part from ACLU-NJ surveys and lawsuits, the United States Departments of Education and Justice in 2014 jointly wrote a letter to school districts across the country emphasizing that the Constitution requires equal access to public education for all students. The guidance specified that requiring driver’s licenses during the enrollment process is impermissible. In 2010, the State DOE issued guidance (PDF) to districts making clear that practices that chill enrollment of immigrant children are forbidden. However, given the recurrence of districts that violate civil rights, the ACLU-NJ believes the DOE needs to go much further.

“Especially in our current climate, schoolchildren and their families deserve assurance that their schools will not discriminate against them because of their immigration status,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “If the DOE won’t act, we will. We cannot stand quietly by and let districts discriminate. The Christie Administration needs to do its job and take action to stop this unlawful, harmful discrimination.”

In 2014, the ACLU-NJ discovered that 136 school districts imposed illegal barriers to immigrant student enrollment and wrote letters asking them to comply with the law. More than 100 changed their policies, but 27 others did not. The ACLU-NJ sued the seven districts with the most severe policies. A few months before that, the ACLU-NJ had filed a lawsuit against the Butler School District when the school district refused to end its policy, and the district ultimately agreed to drop the restrictions.

A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, forbids school districts from excluding children from enrolling based on their or their parents’ immigration status. New Jersey has two requirements that families must meet when attempting to enroll a child in public school: proof of age and proof of in-district residency. Both federal and state law and regulations dictate that schools cannot ask about a students’ immigration status, or, further, discriminate based on national origin or immigration status. 

Read the lawsuits online (all PDF files):

Suspect in Bombings Has a Right to a Lawyer

September 26, 2016
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Prosecutors deny right to counsel for Ahmad Khan Rahami, suspect in Seaside Park and Chelsea bombings

Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Union County Prosecutor’s Office continue to improperly deny criminal defendant Ahmad Khan Rahami the right to an attorney, the ACLU-NJ said today. The ACLU-NJ is working with public defenders to secure them access to their client. To ensure the protection of the right of counsel, until Rahami’s federal public defenders are able to represent him, the ACLU-NJ is serving as Rahami’s legal counsel on federal charges.

“The right of an accused person to have an attorney is a fundamental, undeniable right, regardless of the charges,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “It’s extremely disturbing that Mr. Rahami’s lawyers have not been able to verify their client’s health condition, including his level of consciousness. No one’s interests are protected when law enforcement attempts to circumvent the constitution.”

Rahami has been in Newark’s University Hospital since shortly after authorities took him into custody, and according to media reports he is unconscious. The Union County Prosecutor has prevented his local public defender from checking on his client’s condition, based on arguments that Rahami’s reported lack of consciousness means the arrest warrant has not been executed. The U.S. Attorney General’s Office maintains that Rahami is not yet in federal custody and therefore he is not yet entitled to legal counsel.

“It is outrageous that Mr. Rahami has been in custody for a week yet has been denied the right to have an attorney visit him to confirm his condition and protect his constitutional rights,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Mr. Rahami, like all criminal defendants, has a right to a lawyer. Denying a defendant the right to counsel violates the Constitution and needlessly sacrifices civil liberties in the name of national security. ”

Rahami has been charged by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and U.S. attorneys in New Jersey and New York with crimes stemming from the Sept. 17 bombings and his other activities.

Bergen Man Close to Victory in Ending Unconstitutional Sign Limits

September 22, 2016
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Policies restricting when people can put political signs on lawns are common but unconstitutional

After a four-year effort, a Bergen County man is close to winning his battle over lawn signs. The Wyckoff Township Committee has introduced a measure that would put its currently unconstitutional sign restrictions, which forbid political signs for more than a month at a time, in line with the law.

The ACLU-NJ, working on behalf of Wyckoff resident Stan Goodman, sent a letter (PDF) that persuaded the Township Committee to change the unconstitutional ordinance. On June 28, police officers came to his door with his lawn signs for candidate Joshua Gottheimer in-hand and told Goodman’s wife that the signs violated the town’s ordinance. After trying to resolve it through meeting with town officials, Goodman called ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, who had helped Goodman with the town’s sign restrictions in the past.

“When police come to your door and tell you to take down signs about your beliefs, it intimidates a community into silence,” said Stan Goodman. “This ordinance went much further than legislating aesthetics – it made people afraid to express themselves under the First Amendment. Someone had to do something, so I felt I had to step forward. I’m grateful that Wyckoff community members will now feel free to display their beliefs without fear of punishment.”

The ordinance had prohibited residents from posting political signs for more than a month at a time, and in Goodman’s case, police told him to remove the signs because it was more than a month before the election. In additions, signs could not be within 25 feet of the curb nor more than four square feet in size. The proposed amendment (PDF) would remove limits based on time and size, and it would ease the 25-foot rule. The remaining restrictions relate almost entirely to issues of public safety and public property.

“In towns throughout New Jersey, officials don’t realize that no matter what ordinance they may have on the books, no local policy can override the Constitution,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Year after year, we hear from residents about sign restrictions that go too far. Towns across the state need to review their sign ordinances to make sure they don’t include unlawful restrictions, because if they do, there’s a good chance they’ll hear from the ACLU.”

Goodman challenged the town’s enforcement of the sign ordinance in 2012 with the ACLU-NJ’s help, and for a time the town stopped enforcing it. To rally against a 600,000-square-foot residential living facility planned for Christian Health Care Center, Goodman and other community members put out lawn signs that said, “Save Wyckoff – Stop the Vista.” A town official told the local press that the signs violated Wyckoff’s ordinance and that each sign carried a $500 fine, even though hundreds of lawns displayed them. Goodman first contacted the ACLU-NJ then. LoCicero sent a letter explaining that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The ACLU-NJ was forced to send another letter this summer when it learned that it was enforcing the sign ordinance.

“This ordinance might seem unimportant on a surface level, but it deals with the most serious principles we hold as Americans,” Goodman said. “People want a sense that they’re not alone in their opinions, and I have seen the unifying power of lawn signs to galvanize a movement. In 2012, Wyckoff residents saw with their own eyes that concerns about development were more widespread than they may have known, and it gave them the courage to speak out. I am extremely glad that our town has chosen to let that spirit of community flourish rather than chilling it with unconstitutional restrictions.”

Many New Jersey municipalities have laws on the books placing time-based restrictions on political signs without knowing that the Constitution forbids it, and the ACLU-NJ has challenged such ordinances, both in this election cycle representing a Donald Trump supporter in West Long Branch and in previous cycles.

A vote on the final ordinance is expected to take place at the Wyckoff Township Committee’s October 4 meeting. The draft ordinance (PDF), 2016 letter (PDF), and 2012 letter (PDF) can be read online. If your town has an unconstitutional restriction on political signs or you need help with your voting rights, contact the ACLU-NJ.

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